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Voters in El Salvador were expected to re-elect President Nayib Bukele on Sunday, as the authoritarian leader claimed victory and said his party had won almost all seats in congress before the official results were declared.
Bukele, 42, enjoys one of the highest approval ratings of any world leader thanks to a draconian crackdown on El Salvador’s gangs that has reduced homicides by locking up more than 76,000 people.
In a post on social media site X on Sunday, Bukele said his “numbers” showed he had won the presidential election with more than 85 per cent of the vote and that his Nuevas Ideas party had at least 58 of the 60 seats in congress.
An independent exit poll published by CID Gallup estimated that Salvadoreans gave the incumbent 87 per cent of the vote.
The results would make Bukele, the TikTok-savvy millennial leader, the first Salvadorean president re-elected since the 1930s, after judges picked by his party overturned a ban on serving consecutive terms, a move that observers warned endangered the country’s democratic integrity.
“Here there is no polarisation,” said Bukele in a speech to thousands of supporters in downtown San Salvador, adding that “85 per cent of Salvadoreans have voted to continue the path we’re on in full freedom and full democracy”.
Bukele has sought to change the small Central American nation’s image of poverty and violence with headline-grabbing moves such as making bitcoin legal tender in 2021. But his victory on Sunday — if confirmed — would wipe out the already feeble opposition in the legislature, cementing his grip on top of his dominance of the judiciary and the military.
Academics and civil society activists fear that Bukele may attempt to amend the constitution to allow indefinite re-election — a suggestion he has denied, though his supporters say Salvadoreans want him to remain in power.
“Salvadorean society is dismantling any recourse that it had to check executive power,” said Gustavo Flores-Macías, a professor of politics at Cornell University. “If you get second thoughts down the road, how do you roll it back?”
Foreign leaders from across Latin America as well as China, which Bukele has courted for foreign investment amid tensions with the US, offered congratulations before the official results were announced.
But the strongman has given few details about plans for his second five-year term, which would begin in June.
Voters support the crackdown on gangs but are also clamouring for more economic opportunities, with gross domestic product expected to grow just 2 per cent this year. Bukele’s government has signalled it is keen to secure a deal it is negotiating with the IMF, but the multilateral lender has opposed the country’s use of bitcoin as legal tender.
Bukele’s popularity has been buoyed by a highly effective government propaganda machine that produces positive stories and slick social media videos. His uncompromising security policy has drawn admiration from politicians across Latin America, which has many of the world’s highest homicide rates.
“Presidents elsewhere in the region are paying close attention to the outcome,” Flores-Macías said. “There’s a sense that this may be a new blueprint to follow.”