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El Salvador: Incumbent Re-elected

A historic election in El Salvador’s history concludes with reelection for Nayib Bukele and the New Ideas Party.

The following article was published in the March-April 2024 issue of NewsNotes.

On Sunday, February 4th, Salvadorans around the world took to the polls to elect a President and legislature.
The election was historic in many respects. It was the first time since the civil war that an incumbent was on the ballot. It was the first election in El Salvador to introduce online voting – with all the security complications that that entails. It was also the first election to have physical voting locations abroad.

Yet with a 90% approval rating in the polls, the incumbent President Nayib Bukele was expected to easily win reelection.

President Bukele is a complicated figure. At age 37, he was elected to the presidency of a mostly Catholic El Salvador as the son of a Palestinian imam and the husband to a wife with Sephardic Jewish ancestry. President Bukele is a crypto currency enthusiast who has described himself as a businessman, “philosopher king,” and “the world’s coolest dictator.” He is the first President to seek a second five-year term having stacked the courts with judges who approved an unconstitutional re-election bid.

But his overwhelming popularity stems from the dramatic decrease in the homicide rate during his tenure. In a crackdown on organized crime, President Bukele initiated a “state of exception,” that suspended habeas corpus and resulted in the mass imprisonment of over 70,000 people – most without convictions. The homicide rate in El Salvador went from over 50 per capita in 2018 to 2.4 per capita in 2023. Meanwhile, the World Prison Brief named El Salvador the most imprisoned population in the world, by far, with over twice the per-capita rate of the United States. Human rights advocates have documented 190 deaths and 5,000 abuses related to the policy. We reported these details of abuse of power in previous editions of NewsNotes.

President Bukele’s popularity was especially in evidence abroad. By January 10th, little less than a month away from voting day, over 51,000 votes were submitted online from outside of El Salvador. This number was twelve times the number of Salvadoran voters who voted abroad in 2019. Thomas Gould, from the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, volunteered as a non-partisan observer of the election abroad for the Center for Interchange and Solidarity (CIS) at one voting location in Virginia. There, and at other locations in the DC metro area, President Bukele came away with over 97% percent of the vote.

But much like the candidate, the outcome was complicated. President Bukele’s victory was augmented by a flood of well-organized and well-funded partisan volunteers who flouted election rules against electioneering outside of the polls. Branded T-shirts, calendars, and goodie bags were distributed to those who would wait in line. In the Virginia voting location, partisan observers would pull dozens of people out of the line to assist them in voting online under their close supervision.

Within El Salvador, there were reports of intimidation and even infiltration of the Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE) by the Attorney General’s office, which sometimes resulted in the usurpation of the TSE’s control over boxes of ballots.

While President Bukele’s campaign likely did not need to resort to any of these tactics in order to win, the New Ideas party opted to deploy the tactics anyway. This decision mars what might have been a more clear democratic mandate. In the long-term, it is likely a mistake that will cast a shadow over President Bukele’s latest term.

Photo of election material illegally distributed outside of the Herndon, Virginia polling site on election day.