El Salvador prepares to go to the polls on Sunday with President Nayib Bukele all but certain to secure a resounding victory, after earning widespread popularity for his crackdown on gang violence.
Bukele – a charismatic former ad man who has dubbed himself “the world’s coolest dictator” – has won the support of at least 70% of Salvadoran voters for curbing the gangs who have terrorized huge parts of the small Central American country.
However, many say his strongman tactics have come at the cost of civil and democratic norms. Bukele sidestepped El Salvador’s constitution – which states that presidents can’t immediately seek re-election – to run for a second term, in a move internationally condemned as antidemocratic.
“We are replacing it with something new,” Bukele’s running mate has said of El Salvador’s democratic system, criticizing it as corrupt and impotent.
Voters have been won over by Bukele’s tough-on-crime policies
In 2022, Bukele instituted a state of emergency, vowing a dramatic and sudden crackdown on crime and gang violence. His administration jailed over 75,000 people — roughly one in 45 adults — including many who were not gang members. Inmates have been systematically tortured and abused, the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro reported. Even so, Bukele won widespread popularity — with approval ratings reaching 90% — as security improved in what used to be one of the world’s deadliest countries. Murder rates have fallen by more than 90% since Bukele became president. “I would prefer to live under the dictatorship of a man with a sound mind than under the dictatorship of a bunch of psychopathic maniacs,” one man living in a former gang enclave told The New York Times.
Bukele has eroded democratic norms in his bid for a second term
Bukele’s five years in office have been coupled with a breakdown in democratic limits on presidential power. Once Bukele’s party gained a supermajority in the legislature, he replaced five of El Salvador’s Supreme Court judges with loyalists, who then ruled that Bukele could run for a second consecutive term, which is banned according to El Salvador’s Constitution. The court also ordered the arrest of the former president and four former members of the Legislative Assembly over the alleged cover-up of a massacre in 1981 – in what one political science professor who specializes in Central America called a “cynical and politically motivated move.” The Economist wrote that Bukele has figured out a unique political formula: “how to dismantle a democracy while remaining popular.”
Bukele gains plaudits and copycats across Latin America
In some Latin American countries, people are increasingly hoping for a “Bukele of their own,” Human Rights Watch’s Juan Pappier wrote in El País, with some polls naming El Salvador’s leader as most popular leader in Latin America. Peru’s President Dina Boluarte has responded to calls to institute what has been called the “Bukele plan” — suspending constitutional rights and letting the military take over policing tasks, Bloomberg reported. In Ecuador, where violence has risen sharply over the past year, President Daniel Noboa has announced a state of emergency as part of a wider approach reminiscent of Bukele’s tactics. And across Latin America, a “cult” of would-be Bukeles have also started copying his trademark style of aviator sunglasses, leather jackets, and baseball caps, the Los Angeles Times reported.