El Salvador / Politics

In Election by His Own Rules, Four-Fifths of Salvadorans Give Bukele a Second Term

Over 97 percent of Salvadorans in the U.S. voted for Nayib Bukele, who claimed a commanding electoral victory Sunday with over 80 percent of total votes. Opposition parties have been reduced to a minimum, capping an unconstitutional process totally controlled by the ruling party.

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Monday, February 5, 2024
Roman Gressier and José Luis Sanz

El Faro English translates Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.

“According to our numbers, we have won the presidential election with more than 85 percent of votes, and a minimum of 58 out of 60 deputies in the Assembly.”

It was Nayib Bukele who broke the news over X at 6:56 on Sunday night: He won. By a stratospheric margin only seen in recent elections in Cuba, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It is fair to say, too, that in Guatemala in 1944, Juan José Arévalo, Bernardo Arevalo’s father, won with 86.3 percent.

The numbers reduce any partisan opposition to irrelevance in decision-making. And just as transcendentally, Bukele self-proclaimed victory without awaiting any official result.

Yesterday, the TSE that signed off on Bukele’s unconstitutional reelection bid had its worst performance since El Salvador recovered its democracy. Dozens of polling center volunteers reported that official computers were double- or triple-logging ballots, that paper was missing to make copies of the vote count, and that the heads of voting centers —most of them from ruling party Nuevas Ideas— kept the only copy.

Then, by 10pm Sunday, the official site reporting preliminary results collapsed. For 11 hours, the page claimed to have counted 31 percent of acts, or 1.88 million ballots; but the votes supposedly counted, plus those reportedly not cast, exceeded 3.4 million.

That data would have also implied a turnout of 84.9 percent, despite the fact that on-the-ground observers saw around 50 percent cast ballots at most centers.

Nevertheless, one hour after Bukele declared the evening an open-and-shut affair, Arévalo of Guatemala was the first head of state to congratulate him: “The Salvadoran people have chosen, and have made their will heard.” Honduras, Panama, and Mexico quickly followed. The U.S. Secretary of State joined Monday midday.

Shortly after the polls closed, Nayib Bukele convened a mass demonstration in front of the National Palace to celebrate his victory. Photo Víctor Peña
Shortly after the polls closed, Nayib Bukele convened a mass demonstration in front of the National Palace to celebrate his victory. Photo Víctor Peña

The Bukele tweet effect showed how influential the president is now, not only in El Salvador but in the hemisphere. And how far behind Salvadoran institutions have fallen.

On Monday morning, opposition legislator Claudia Ortiz called the TSE debacle “orchestrated chaos. The system has been made to fail in an orchestrated fashion.”

Electoral expert Malcolm Cartagena called for calm: “The votes are in the ballot boxes, and it will be the final count that dictates the winner,” he told El Faro English of the failure of the preliminary count. “But what is obvious is that the TSE simulations focused on logistical and personnel problems, and did not conduct stress tests on the IT system.”

When the data finally was updated at 10:30am ET, 70 percent of presidential votes were reported. Nuevas Ideas had raked in 83.1 percent, followed by the FMLN, with 6.95, Arena with 6.2, and Nuestro Tiempo with 2.3.

It is a muddled scenario for international observation missions. The E.U. has yet to weigh in, but former Panamanian VP Isabel de Saint Malo, head of the OAS mission, wrote Monday afternoon that “the wide difference between Nayib Bukele and the other candidates leaves no doubt about the election results.”

The Tribunal’s failure adds to dozens of government abuses of authority in recent weeks. On Sunday, the purportedly nonpartisan voting stations (JRV) were all composed of members of Nuevas Ideas, and the ruling party repeatedly violated rules against campaigning on election day and at voting sites.

“There has been strong interference from the state and the governing party in different phases of the process,” UNAM researcher Flavia Freidenberg, coordinator of the Observatory of Political Reforms in Latin America, told El Faro English. The TSE “has had serious difficulties as an arbiter, and the process has had many situations of a tilted field, where they have been unable to take out yellow cards, let alone red cards.”

Nayib Bukele broke
Nayib Bukele broke 'electoral silence' rules in interrupting election day with a Sunday afternoon press conference calling on Salvadorans to vote. Photo Carlos Barrera

“Hanging over the TSE is a sword of Damocles,” adds Cartagena. “An announced constitutional reform will make it disappear, just as the rest of the institutions disappeared or are under the president’s control. What happened Sunday, including the lack of sanctions, especially against Nuevas Ideas, serves the Executive Branch as a final justification for the reform.”

“The only thing stopping Bukele from dissolving it [the TSE] already,” he added, “is that it is still of use to legitimize his victory.”

A welcome strongman

As presaged by polling, Bukele’s overwhelming victory is a renewed license from Salvadorans to wield the unlimited power he and his party have accumulated.

His opponents, traditional parties Arena and the FMLN, will not face legal cancellation, after obtaining more than 50,000 presidential votes. Newcomer Nuestro Tiempo, with over 45,000, sits on the cusp. But if in the March 3 municipal elections all or almost all the mayors’ offices also are allotted to Nuevas Ideas, it will mean that across El Salvador there could be as few as three or four elected officials not belonging to the ruling party.

The Legislative Assembly results are advancing at a snail’s pace, but after aggressive reforms that drew comparisons to U.S. gerrymandering, the ruling party Nuevas Ideas is expected to obtain between 57 and 58 seats out of 60.

It is a response to Bukele's results in public security, and his sculpting of a new national pride. No matter the increase in poverty or the jailing of thousands of innocents —VP Félix Ulloa admitted so publicly— many feel the country is leaving behind past traumas and entering the 21st century.

The devotion to Bukele is striking in the diaspora, where official data reported at noon ET that 326,766 Salvadoran foreign residents voted — 74 times the 4,400 who did so in 2019. An astounding 97.9 percent of them voted for President Bukele or his party.

The governing party Nuevas Ideas was the only party to maintain mass presence and publicity in various voting centers around El Salvador. Photo Víctor Peña
The governing party Nuevas Ideas was the only party to maintain mass presence and publicity in various voting centers around El Salvador. Photo Víctor Peña

In College Park, Maryland, thousands waited up to five hours to vote, many arriving before polls opened, from hours away, to then go to work at restaurants. The crowds were full of shirts with Bukele’s face. It was an overwhelming expression of a community that is vast in the U.S. but usually dispersed and uncoordinated.

Hundreds were left in line when voting centers closed. In an unprecedented decision, TSE President Dora Martínez said in a Sunday evening press conference that “another date will be allotted for those who were left out of voting centers” in the diaspora.

They will be allowed to vote for Bukele in an election he already won, days after he celebrated.

It was also in the U.S. where the complete fusion of state and party was most evident. Bukele officials assisted with voting from cell phones and tablets, while individuals with hats supporting the president’s reelection controlled the doors in Bethesda, Maryland.

El Faro English obtained a copy of a video in which the Salvadoran Ambassador to Washington, Milena Mayorga, consults with the Tribunal over the phone and gives orders to voting tables for people with unregistered passports to be able to vote.

The next enemy?

With still no official results, around 10:30pm, before an extravagant show of lights in the Central Plaza in San Salvador, Bukele addressed thousands of supporters:

“I ask these foreign governments, and these journalists: Why do you want them [the gangs] to kill us?” he shouted. “Why are you not happy that blood does not flow in our country as it did before? Why should we and our children die so that you can be content that we respect your false democracy?”

Nayib Bukele announced his electoral victory on Feb. 4, 2024, on the platform X, before electoral authorities had published any preliminary results. Photo Carlos Barrera
Nayib Bukele announced his electoral victory on Feb. 4, 2024, on the platform X, before electoral authorities had published any preliminary results. Photo Carlos Barrera

It appeared the reelected president had chosen his next main target. In a press conference after voting, he made no mention of the political opposition, fielded no questions from national media, and upbraided the foreign reporters whom he gave the mic.

When a journalist from Univision asked whether Bukele thinks “El Salvador needs a constitutional reform [that] should include indefinite reelection”, he replied, “No, I don’t think that it should include that.”

He then turned to Univision’s coverage: “All [your] articles are negative. If one article were positive and the other negative, I’d call that balance. But I ask: Who do you work for? You’re going to lose that last five percent of your audience, and the check from Soros is going to run out.”

Spanish newspaper El País requested comment on Ulloa’s Friday statement to the New York Times: “To these people who say democracy is being dismantled, my answer is yes. We are not dismantling it, we are eliminating it. We are replacing it with something new.”

“I don’t trust anything the New York Times says,” Bukele retorted, before adding: “El Salvador has never had democracy. (...) We are bringing democracy to this country.”

The candidate’s conference was broadcast on government TV. It was an ironic snapshot, one that summed up election day. Bukele —who has claimed to be on presidential leave— has gone five years without giving an interview to a Salvadoran outlet, and no other contender had a minute of air space, during the whole campaign, on state media.

This article first appeared in the January 10 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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