Election Watch

How the World’s Most Popular Dictator Wins

El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele may be overwhelmingly popular, but he wasn’t going to let his electoral ambitions hinge on being well-liked. Instead, he rigged the playing field before the first vote was cast.

By Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez

February 2024

On the evening of February 4, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele delivered a triumphant victory speech from the balcony of the presidential palace. “You have seen, thanks to God and to this noble and united people, how El Salvador has gone from being the less secure to being the most secure country,” he boasted. “Now, in these next five years, just wait and see what we are going to do.”

There was never any question that Bukele would emerge victorious in El Salvador’s February election. But the margins were nonetheless stunning. Despite delays in the official vote count, exit polls predicted that Bukele had won 87 percent of the presidential vote and that his party had secured at least 54 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Salvadoran president claimed it was the biggest victory ever won in a democratic election. “All together the opposition was pulverized,” he announced.

In part, Bukele’s landslide victory reflects his overwhelming popularity, which most polls place well above 80 percent. But long before a single vote was cast, the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator” had rewritten and circumvented the rules of the game to tilt the electoral playing field decisively in his favor.

Consider term limits. The country’s constitution bars sitting presidents from seeking reelection. But on 1 May 2021, Bukele and his legislative allies summarily dismissed — and then promptly packed — the country’s constitutional court. Four months later, the new court issued a controversial ruling that paved the way for Bukele’s reelection bid. The ruling did stipulate that Bukele would have to temporarily step down six months before the start of his second term, but the president treated this as no more than a formality: Shortly before the deadline arrived, he named a little-known loyalist as his temporary successor — and then continued to exercise the powers of the presidency himself.

But Bukele did not stop at abolishing the reelection ban. In March 2023, the bukelista legislature eliminated a legal provision prohibiting electoral reforms within twelve months of an election. By June, Bukele and his allies had overhauled El Salvador’s electoral system, reorganizing the country’s 262 municipalities into 44 larger districts, slashing the size of the unicameral legislature from 84 to 60 seats, and replacing the electoral formula for legislators.

One way to measure the impact of these reforms is to compare how Bukele’s New Ideas party fared in the 2021 elections against how it would have performed under the new rules. In that year’s elections, his party won 56 of 84 legislative seats (67 percent) and 150 out of 262 local governments (57 percent). The Salvadoran think tank Acción Ciudadana estimates that, under the new rules, New Ideas would have won 55 of 60 seats (just under 92 percent) and 37 of 44 local governments (or 84 percent). Through the 2023 reform, Bukele effectively gerrymandered El Salvador’s electoral map.

In the lead up to election day, Bukele routinely used the powers of his office to disadvantage his rivals. The cash-strapped opposition parties, for example, reported that the Finance Ministry had withheld more than US$24 million in public funding. Overseas voting presented another set of opportunities to tilt the playing field. A Bukele-dominated legislative commission ruled that most ballots cast abroad, which were expected to heavily favor New Ideas, would be counted as if they had been cast in the San Salvador district. (San Salvador accounts for the largest number of seats — 14 — and is where Claudia Ortíz, perhaps Bukele’s most effective critic, was running for reelection.) Bukele officials were also recorded discussing schemes to encourage votes for the ruling party at overseas polling places. Within El Salvador, Bukele deployed state resources to disseminate propaganda and distribute packets of food, toilet paper, and other goods emblazoned with the presidential seal. One member of the electoral authority, which Bukele controls, lamented that he had been “left powerless” to prevent Bukele’s party from skirting electoral regulations.

The opposition, in short, was forced to compete at a serious disadvantage — and against a backdrop of heavily curtailed freedoms. A range of constitutional rights have been suspended since March 2022, when Bukele declared war on the country’s gangs and established a state of emergency; in the period since, state forces have made over 75,000 arrests. Bukele has systematically harassed and intimidated the independent press, forcing many of its members into exile. In one recent poll, almost two in three Salvadorans said they were “being more careful when sharing their opinions about politics.” Joel Sánchez, who ran against Bukele on the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) ticket, traditionally the party of business leaders, said in a recent interview that “government persecution has made business elites afraid of contributing to the campaign.”

Opposition parties compounded the challenge with a strategic blunder of their own. Since at least 2022, El Salvador’s democratic opposition — comprising ARENA, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and two newer parties, Our Time and Vamos — had been in negotiations to form a single coalition for the 2024 election. But in May 2023, when El Faro reported that the parties were closing in on a joint presidential ticket, ARENA and the FMLN abandoned the negotiations. It is unlikely that a coalition opposition candidate could have seriously challenged Bukele’s reelection bid, but it is possible that a united front could have prevented his party from securing a legislative supermajority. Instead, the four opposition parties were left to fight for their own survival. (At the time of writing, ARENA and the FMLN appeared on track to win enough votes to retain their party status; Our Time and Vamos, Ortíz’s party, seemed less likely to survive.)

Salvadoran democracy entered a period of terminal backsliding in May 2021, when Bukele and his allies packed the constitutional court and fired the attorney-general. Since then, the key question has been what kind of regime would emerge in its place. The February 4 election provided a resounding answer: competitive authoritarianism. Opposition candidates were free to compete, most Salvadorans were free to vote, and most votes, it appears, were counted. But Bukele and his allies systematically violated (and in some cases rewrote) core democratic rules to their advantage, abused state resources and institutions to disadvantage the opposition, and captured the electoral tribunal, the courts, and other key referees. These are the trademarks of competitive authoritarian regimes.

What To Expect from Bukele’s Second Term

What does Bukele’s second term have in store? It may be too soon to provide definitive answers, but there are some early signs of what is to come. First, Bukele will likely have to focus a significant portion of his attention on the economy. According to one study, almost 70 percent of Salvadorans say “economic issues” are the country’s biggest problem. Faced with the highest debt burden in Central America and lackluster growth projections, Bukele has already been forced to cut social spending, experiment with Bitcoin, implement pension reform, and negotiate with the IMF. How Bukele manages this delicate balance may have far-reaching economic and political consequences. The economy may well be to Bukele’s second term what crime was to his first.

A second key question concerns the future of Bukele’s controversial crime policy. On the campaign trail, Bukele has signaled that the intends to keep the state of emergency in place. The measure is extremely popular among Salvadorans and has, for the time being, succeeded in dismantling El Salvador’s criminal groups. The measure has also turned Bukele into a regional star, especially among the right in Latin America and the United States. But the crackdown has enabled widespread human-rights violations and put a significant strain on state resources: El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As Salvadorans become increasingly concerned about other issues, and as Bukele attempts to negotiate a deal with the IMF, he may well decide to declare victory in the war on gangs and lift the emergency order.

Another question is whether Bukele will begin to lay the groundwork for a third term. Ahead of the February 4 election, Bukele downplayed suggestions that he would plan to run again in 2029. But Vice-President Félix Ullóa — who serves as a sort of international spokesperson for the government — told a reporter not to rule out a third Bukele term. “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,” quipped the vice-president in a different interview. If Bukele chooses to extend his time in office again, he will face few obstacles.

The most important question of all may be whether Bukele is able to sustain his popularity — and how he will respond if his public support drops. So far, Bukele has dealt with his critics primarily through threats, intimidation, and cooptation. Although there have been several notable exceptions, he has, in general, stopped short of jailing opponents or repressing protests. One reason is that Bukele has been able to rely on his overwhelming popularity to discredit critics and avoid mass protests. If this changes, he may adopt a more repressive approach.

At any rate, history does not bode well for El Salvador. As political scientist Javier Corrales notes, incumbent presidents who win reelection by big margins tend to be bad news for Latin America: More often than not, they usher in periods of widespread corruption, political repression, inflation, and autocratization. On February 4, Salvadorans reelected a president who takes great pride in bucking historical trends. They will be hoping Bukele can buck this one, too.

Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez is a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard University. He was born and raised in El Salvador.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Camilo Freedman/SOPA Images/Shutterstock




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