One Man, Single Party Rule, Confirmed by Elections in El Salvador

El Salvador held elections on Sunday for president and for deputies to the country's Legislative Assembly.  Easily cruising to reelection was Nayib Bukele, the country's millennial president, first elected to a five year term in 2019.  He was re-elected despite six provisions in the constitution which prohibit a president of El Salvador from serving two successive terms.  High court judges, put in place by Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party when it got control of the country's congress in 2021, gave him a path to ignore those constitutional prohibitions.  

At the time of writing this post, 31.5% of the votes for president had been counted, and Bukele led with 83% of the votes.   The next closet candidate was Chino Flores from the FMLN with 7.1% of the vote.

[UPDATE:   As of 7:15 Monday morning El Salvador time, there are no preliminary results in the elections after the system for transmitting results from voting centers to the TSE was producing anomalous results].

Bukele proclaimed himself the winner just before 7 p.m. El Salvador time, claiming this was the biggest victory in the history of world democracy:

According to our numbers, we have won the presidential election with more than 85% of the votes and a minimum of 58 of 60 deputies in the Assembly.

The record in the entire democratic history of the world.

See you at 9pm in front of the National Palace.

God bless El Salvador.

Bukele's election night victory speech before a crowd of supporters in Plaza Barrios, repeated his claim of the largest victory in democratic history, and followed with minutes of railing against his critics in the international press and human rights organizations.

This election occurred under an ongoing set of emergency decrees called the State of Exception.  The State of Exception, since March 27, 2022, has suspended a variety of due process rights for persons arrested, allowing jailing without judicial orders, jailing without informing persons of the charges, suspending rights to talk with a lawyer, and indefinite detentions without trial.  To date more than 76,000 people have been arrested and thrown in prison without trials according to unverifiable social media reports from security forces.  Despite Bukele declaring his country to be the safest in Latin America, he has declined to return these constitutional protections to the citizens of the country, declaring that every last gang member must be hunted down and removed. 

Photo by Salvadoran press office of inmates in new prison

Bukele's victory came as a surprise to no one.  His approval rating in public opinion polls has been as high as 90% with Salvadorans giving him credit with dismantling the street gangs in the country and reducing homicide levels to historic lows for a country which only 9 years ago was the murder capital of the world.     

 Bukele's support is driven by perceptions of substantial improvement in the security situation in the country, along with a polished publicity machine which portrays the president as author of a glimmering new El Salvador.  The work of the publicity machine reached its apex this year in the Miss Universe pageant broadcast from San Salvador, and the meeting of international soccer star Lionel Messi with Bukele in his office.  It does not seem to matter that the images in the slick videos do not match the realities in most communities around the country.

The cult of personality which surrounds Bukele seems impervious to documented revelations of corruption and wrongdoing in his government published by independent journalists in the country.

Bukele's single-handed control of all the branches of government in the country and the imposition of an ongoing State of Exception confirms in the minds of many his description as a "populist autocrat."   Those evaluations were solidified by an interview his Vice President Felix Ulloa gave to the New York Times:

“To these people who say democracy is being dismantled, my answer is yes — we are not dismantling it, we are eliminating it, we are replacing it with something new,” said Félix Ulloa, who is running for re-election as vice president alongside Mr. Bukele.

The democratic system that existed for years in El Salvador, Mr. Ulloa said, only benefited crooked politicians and left the country with tens of thousands murdered. “It was rotten, it was corrupt, it was bloody,” he said....

Mr. Ulloa said the vast majority of the country actually wants Mr. Bukele to be president “for life.” 

Voting by the Salvadoran diaspora

This was the first election in El Salvador which let Salvadorans living abroad to vote over the Internet.  Going into the final days of the election, more than 140,000 Salvadorans abroad had voted in this fashion. 

Only Salvadorans who had a national identity card (DUI) with a residential address abroad were eligible to vote over the internet.  If you live abroad and your DUI still had an address in El Salvador, or if you had a Salvadoran passport (even an expired one) you could vote only on Sunday at one of 81 sites set up at consulates, embassies and other sites around the world. 

Social media posts portrayed long lines of Salvadorans waiting to vote at these sites around the US:

Overflowing....Long Island, NY voting

At the time of this writing, the TSE has not revealed the number of internet votes from abroad.  I'll analyze local and internet turnout in a future post.  The new internet voting law allocates all the internet votes to San Salvador, regardless of where the voter lives or lived before.  The law also allocates the votes of any Salvadoran who uses their passport as identification for voting abroad to San Salvador.

There were also members of the diaspora who came back to El Salvador to cast their vote in person and to experience the Bukele phenomenon.  

The election campaigns

Although Bukele dominated public perceptions of this election, he did not himself make appearances at campaign rallies, or give interviews, or participate in debates.  His campaigning consisted of highly produced videos accompanied by an army of promoters on all the different channels of social media.

Throughout the country, election billboards did not promote candidates for president. Assured of victory, Bukele had no need to spend funds on something as traditional as billboard advertising.  With negligible chance of victory and little funding, opposition parties did not try.

Instead, the billboard advertising which did exist promoted candidates for the Legislative Assembly.  While Nuevas Ideas dominated the outdoor advertising landscape, you could still find ARENA and a few of the smaller parties advertising their highest profile candidates.   

Bukele and Nuevas Ideas framed the election for the Legislative Assembly as one of "governability" by which they meant the elimination of any obstacle that might get in the way of Nayib Bukele governing however he wants to govern.  Their messaging often contained an explicit threat that, if opposition parties kept Nuevas Ideas from obtaining a super majority, the State of Exception would be ended and gang members would be returned to the streets of the country.   

Nuevas Ideas and Bukele took full advantage of being in control of the government and its resources.  A prime example were the deliveries of boxes of groceries to households all across the country in the two weeks leading up to Election Day prominently emblazoned with the logo of the "Presidential Program of Food Assistance."

The weeks leading up to the election also saw an increased presence of armed soldiers patrolling streets and neighborhoods throughout the country.  While some commentators saw the message of the military presence as one of intimidation, the more likely symbolism was to remind the population of the highly popular involvement of the military in Bukele's war on gangs.     

As part of the actions of the Territorial Control Plan
elements of the Armed Forces patrol plazas and parks
to guarantee the tranquility of visitors.

Opposition parties garnered tiny percentages of the presidential vote.  At the time of this writing, the previous major parties, the FMLN and ARENA, had garnered 7% and 6% of the vote respectively.

This ARENA party caravan a week before the election
 looked pretty lonely

Elimination of opposition in the Legislative Assembly

No preliminary returns for the Legislative Assembly have been released as of the time of this article.   However, assuming those votes track reasonably closely to the votes for Bukele, Nuevas Ideas would capture as many as 58 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly, giving Bukele's party a super majority without the need of any coalition partners in the legislature.  Many parties which formerly had a few seats in the Assembly will be left outside.

Chambers of Legislative Assembly

The elimination of opposition party deputies from the Legislative Assembly will have been accomplished both by the popularity of Bukele, and by association his political party, but also by "election engineering" in the year leading up to these elections.  The Nuevas Ideas controlled congress changed Salvadoran laws in several respects to give Bukele's party an even stronger hand.  

  • It reduced the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly from 84 to 60, meaning a small party would need a greater share of votes to capture a single seat.   
  • It changed the mathematical formula for allocating seats to parties to a method which favors large parties at the expense of smaller ones.  (For more on this change from the Hare quota method to the D'Hondt method, see my earlier post).
  • It directed that all votes over the Internet, and all votes cast from abroad by Salvadorans using a passport as identification, should be allocated to the Department of San Salvador, presuming that diaspora votes would overwhelmingly favor Nuevas Ideas and swamping the Department where opposition parties have much of a base.

With sole super-majority control of the Legislative Assembly, Bukele can now continue to operate in a government which has no checks and balances on his exercise of power. He can extend indefinitely the State of Exception with its power to arrest anyone without question.   He can modify any or all provisions of the Salvadoran constitution, including any limitations on further re-elections.   (Bukele and his vice president claim to have no intention to do this, but.....).

When there are more complete results for the Legislative Assembly elections, I'll analyze them more closely.