El Salvador's Nayib Bukele Takes Aim At Critics In Looking Ahead To 2Nd Presidential Term

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, left, accompanied by his wife Gabriela Rodriguez, wave to supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, after polls closed for general elections on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, left, accompanied by his wife Gabriela Rodriguez, wave to supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, after polls closed for general elections on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele is savoring what appears to be a landslide reelection victory, and is railing against his international critics and the press. The populist leader has declared himself a harbinger of democracy, not the case study for 21st century autocracy that some fear.

Bukele told thousands of cheering supporters Sunday night that El Salvador hasn’t known democracy until now, though he acknowledged that his vision of that ideal is distinct from the norm.

“It will be the first time in a country that just one party exists in a completely democratic system,” Bukele said, adding that “the entire opposition together was pulverized.”

Bukele will be El Salvador’s first reelected president, following Sunday's election. His party’s majority in congress and a friendly court they stacked allowed him to dodge a constitutional ban.

By Monday, Bukele had 83% of the vote against 7% from his nearest competitor with ballots from about 71% of polling stations tallied in a troubled process plagued by glitches, according to preliminary data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Bukele describes himself as the “world's coolest dictator,” and his firm grip on power was only expected to strengthen. He predicted his New Ideas party would win an even larger congressional majority, but Monday the ballots from only 5% of polling places had been tallied.

If true, analysts say the leader would be able to continue his controversial crackdown on the gangs and potentially reform the country’s constitution — a move already proposed by his government once before — to stay in power.

Bukele’s victory lap was met with a roar from the crowd donning t-shirts, scarves, hats, puppets, masks and life-sized cardboard cutouts emblazoned with his face. But others say the Central American nation is headed down a dangerous path that could corrode democracy and trickle out to the rest of the region.

“There’s no going back,” said Eduardo Escobar, lawyer and director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action. “This election signifies the consolidation of an authoritarian model of government in El Salvador, ratified by the people.”

The 42-year-old Bukele has repeatedly raised democratic alarms throughout his presidency, accused of stacking courts with loyalists and tinkering with Salvadoran law to concentrate power in his own hands. That continues to be a concern for some as he is set to be sworn in to his second term on June 1.

But he’s also adored by many Salvadorans because his government’s controversial crackdown on the country’s gangs sharply dropped violence in what a decade ago was one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Highly popular, the “state of emergency” was the highlight of campaign messaging, and something Bukele promised to continue despite originally only being a temporary measure when the firebrand began his gang crackdown nearly two years ago. Under the emergency, officials have detained more than 76,000 people — more than 1% of El Salvador’s population — often with very little evidence and little access to due process.

Gabriel Gomez, 44, was among the more than 1.6 million people who voted for Bukele. Walking out of a voting station on Sunday in the formerly gang controlled area of Mejicanos, he said that even with constitutional concerns, he’d rather live under Bukele’s emergency measures.

He accused El Salvador’s traditional parties – the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – of having “walked all over the constitution” before Bukele came to power. Thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and ineffectiveness, those parties have scooped up just a miniscule percentage of the votes.

“The constitution never gave me security, the constitution didn’t feed me,” he said. The gangs “used to kill 50 people a day. Where was the constitution protecting us? They killed my sister-in-law's 13-year-old daughter, where was the constitution then?”

Still, Bukele’s tactics have sparked fierce criticism by some across the region.

Human rights observers accused his government of committing widespread human rights abuses in the gang crackdown, and of torturing and causing the deaths of more than 150 inmates. The United States government has sanctioned members of his government for negotiating with the country’s gangs, something Bukele adamantly denies.

The Biden administration, however, has softened its tone with Bukele as his government has cooperated with the U.S. on its agenda to slow historic levels of migration north. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Bukele on his victory, adding that “the United States will continue to prioritize good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights in El Salvador.”

That came after Bukele dedicated more than half of his victory speech to attacking foreign critics and journalists. He blamed decades of bloodshed, civil war and gang violence on foreign meddling by governments like the U.S., which funded El Salvador's military during the country's civil conflict.

“I ask these organisms, foreign governments, I ask these journalists: Why do they want us to kill each other?” he said. “Why do they want to see the blood of Salvadorans? Why are they not happy that blood doesn’t flow in our country the way it once did? Why should we and our children die?”

The speech rippled concern across press in El Salvador, which have faced harassment and legal attacks by the Bukele government, and were also the victims of the powerful Pegasus spy software, often used by governments to spy on adversaries.

“It is clear to me after his speech: the next priority enemy to be destroyed by Bukele will be the independent press,” Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez wrote in a post on the platform X.

Martínez is the news director of investigative news organization El Faro. His team had to move their base from El Salvador to Costa Rica last year, citing ongoing harassment and concerns of future attacks.

Bukele also said the key to resolving El Salvador’s longtime problems was to ignore the concept of “false democracy” imposed by external critics and use his party's “super majority” to make change in the country.

Escobar, of El Salvador-based Citizen Action, said Bukele's ability to push through his agenda depends heavily on his control of congress. His “state of emergency” security measures that have handed the leader soaring popularity are approved month-to-month by legislators that have controlled the body since 2021. He would also need that majority to fulfill campaign pledges to continue making big changes in the Central American country.

Echoing other critics, he said if Bukele wins enough congressional seats the government may be able to reform the constitution, opening up the possibility for Bukele to run for another term.

While Bukele has said running for a third term is not legal under the current constitution, his running mate left open the possibility of a third term if the law was changed in an interview with The Associated Press.

“If the constitution is changed, (Bukele) wants to do it and the constitution enables that, I suppose he would be able to do so,” Ulloa said. “A third (term) is not allowed under the current constitution. I’m not saying it is not possible if it changes."