El Salvador’s Bukele declares victory in presidential election
SAN SALVADOR — President Nayib Bukele on Sunday declared himself winner of El Salvador’s national elections in a landslide, claiming he captured more than 85% of the vote — even though electoral officials have not released any results.
Bukele was the heavy favorite to win another five-year term as voters largely cast aside concerns about erosion of democracy to reward him for a fierce gang crackdown that improved security in the Central American country.
Mr. Bukele, 42, said his New Ideas party also captured at least 58 positions in El Salvador’s 60-seat legislative assembly, citing unspecified information that he had access to.
“A record in the entire democratic history of the world,” Mr. Bukele said on X, the social media site. “See you at 9pm in front of the National Palace.”
Electoral officials have not commented on the results yet. Polls closed at 5 p.m. (2300 GMT), about two hours before Mr. Bukele claimed victory. An exit poll by CID Gallup put Mr. Bukele’s support at 87%.
Mr. Bukele now appears poised to become the first Salvadoran president in almost a century to be re-elected. If his predictions are accurate, he will wield unprecedented power and be able to overhaul El Salvador’s constitution, which his opponents fear will result in scrapping of term limits.
Wildly popular, Mr. Bukele has campaigned on the success of his security strategy under which authorities suspended civil liberties to arrest more than 75,000 Salvadorans without charges. The detentions led to a sharp decline in nationwide murder rates and transformed a country of 6.3 million people that was once among the world’s most dangerous.
But some analysts have said the mass incarceration of 1% of the population is not sustainable long-term.
Hours earlier, bullish Mr. Bukele held a press conference and said his party needed all the support it could muster to maintain its anti-gang fight and continue reshaping El Salvador.
“So, if we have already overcome our cancer, with metastases that were the gangs, now we only have to recover and be the person we always wanted to be,” said Mr. Bukele. “I believe El Salvador, after half a century of suffering now it is our time to move forward.”
Few doubted the outcome of the elections. Polls showed most voters appear set to reward Mr. Bukele for decimating the crime groups that made life intolerable in El Salvador and fueled waves of migration to the United States.
“We have to continue the changes that are happening in our country — positive changes. We have no crime, tourism has sky-rocketed,” said construction worker Victor Lopez, 65, who was among the first people to vote at the same center where Mr. Bukele cast his ballot.
“We cannot let the corrupt people from before have power again,” Mr. Lopez added.
Pre-election polling put support in the single digits for the candidates of FMLN and ARENA, two parties that held power between them until 2019, with voters fed up after decades of traditional politics marked by violence and corruption.
A firebrand politician who often spars with foreign leaders and critics on social media, Mr. Bukele came to power in 2019 trouncing traditional parties with a vow to eliminate gang violence and rejuvenate a stagnant economy.
He has used his New Ideas party’s supermajority in the legislative assembly to reshape courts and institutions, solidifying his grip on key parts of the government. He also championed the introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender, drawing criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal last year permitted him to run for a second term even though the country’s constitution prohibits it. Opponents fear Mr. Bukele will seek to rule for life, following President Daniel Ortega from next-door Nicaragua.
When asked on Sunday by reporters if he planned to reform the constitution to include indefinite re-election, Mr. Bukele said he “didn’t think a constitutional reform would be necessary,” but did not directly answer questions on whether he would try to run for a third term.
Alicia Barcena, Mexico’s foreign minister, congratulated Mr. Bukele on his victory even though official results were still unannounced.
The Chinese Embassy in San Salvador in a post on X congratulated Mr. Bukele and his party “for the historic victory in these elections.”
Rights groups have said El Salvador’s democracy is under attack. Mr. Bukele has taken such concerns in stride, at one point changing his profile on X to say: “World’s coolest dictator.”
Once officially re-elected, Mr. Bukele’s biggest challenge is likely to be the economy, Central America’s slowest growing during his time in power. More than a quarter of Salvadorans live in poverty.
Some voters said it was already a deciding factor, along with worries about critics being silenced, due process violations, and democracy.
“I don’t like that he has put a lot of people (in jail) that haven’t done anything. That is a problem,” said civil engineer Miguel Medina, 73, who is supporting the FMLN.
“Having a balance of power would be a triumph for us.”
He said he was worried about the rising costs of food and housing.
Extreme poverty has doubled and private investment has tumbled under Mr. Bukele. There has not been much momentum on his highly publicized plans for Bitcoin City, a tax-free crypto haven powered by geothermal energy from a volcano.
The IMF, which is negotiating a $1.3-billion bailout with El Salvador, in late 2023 described the country’s fiscal situation as “fragile.” — Reuters