El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele cements power as he begins second term

After February landslide win, 42-year-old set to govern for another five years with near-total control of parliament and other state institutions.

Bukele came to power promising to crush criminal gangs [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele is set to be sworn in for a second term, riding on a wave of popularity that has helped him consolidate his power and influence in the country.

The 42-year-old, who unapologetically describes himself as a “cool dictator”, was re-elected in February with 85 percent of the vote. He is set to govern for another five years with near-total control of parliament and other state institutions.

The former publicist and mayor will take the oath of office at the National Palace in the capital, San Salvador, on Saturday.

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The ceremony is due to be attended by dignitaries including Spanish King Felipe VI and Argentinian President Javier Milei, with whom Bukele shares an admiration for former United States President Donald Trump, whose son and namesake is also attending the event.

On Friday, inauguration preparations were disrupted by reports that police thwarted a plot to detonate explosives at locations across the country.

Bukele enjoys sky-high approval ratings due to his brutal crackdown on criminal gangs, credited with returning a sense of normalcy to a violence-fatigued society.

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The campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups but has made Bukele the most popular leader in Latin America, according to a regional poll.

Bukele’s New Ideas party scored a near-clean sweep in legislative elections, where it took 54 of 60 seats.

Yet experts warn his extended honeymoon with voters may be nearing its end as economic worries overtake safety concerns in the public discourse, amid high government debt and fast-rising prices for consumer goods in a country where more than a quarter of the six million population lives in poverty.

Food inflation, meanwhile, has outpaced salary increases while public debt has skyrocketed on his watch to more than $30bn, or 84 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Argentina’s President Javier Milei takes part in a welcome ceremony with El Salvador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandra Hill Tinoco as Milei arrives to participate in Bukele’s second term inauguration ceremony [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

Gangs as a ‘cancer’

Bukele will have even more power in his second term after the legislative assembly approved a reform that will make it easier for him to push through constitutional changes.

The president has laughed off criticism of authoritarian tendencies, but he was only able to seek re-election after a loyalist Supreme Court ruling allowed him to bypass a constitutional ban on successive terms.

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“What he has demonstrated is that the law is irrelevant and that he can do whatever he wants, how he wants,” public policy expert Carlos Carcach told AFP news agency, describing Bukele as an “all-powerful” president.

With his preferred getup of jeans and a baseball cap, millennial Bukele came to power in 2019 promising to crush the country’s gangs, to which he attributes some 120,000 murders over three decades – more than the 75,000 lives lost in El Salvador’s civil war from 1980 to 1992.

During Bukele’s first term, authorities rounded up more than 80,000 presumed gangsters under a state of emergency in place since March 2022 that allows for arrest without a warrant.

His government also built the largest prison in Latin America to hold them.

The result, Bukele has boasted, has been turning “the murder capital of the world, the world’s most dangerous country, into the safest country in the Western Hemisphere”.

But it has come at a cost.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported the killing and torture of detainees, and thousands of innocent people – including minors – among those arrested.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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