Civil society groups raise concerns Sunday’s vote could speed up deterioration of El Salvador’s democratic institutions.
Voters are casting their ballots in El Salvador on Sunday, as President Nayib Bukele’s New Ideas party (Nuevas Ideas) is expected to make major gains in the legislative and local elections.
Long queues of voters wearing face masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic stretched outside of voting centres ahead of polls opening at 7am (13:00 GMT).
Salvadorans are choosing 84 legislators to represent them in the national assembly for the next three years, as well as 262 municipal councils.
Opinion polls released before the vote showed Bukele’s party with about 70 percent support – and a strong chance of securing more than half of the mayoral positions and enough seats to hold at least a simple majority in Congress.
Bukele, who took office in 2019, came to power on a promise to root out corruption and offer an alternative to El Salvador’s main political parties, left-wing FMLN and right-wing ARENA.
ARENA currently holds 37 of the 84 seats in Congress and controls 138 of the 262 municipal councils, while FMLN holds 23 congressional seats and 64 municipal councils.
Tens of thousands of police, soldiers and international observers have been deployed to oversee the vote.
“We hope to have a peaceful election day, a truly civic celebration crowned by massive participation of the electorate,” Dora Martinez, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) told national TV.
Earlier this month, the TSE called for international observers to be sent early after two FMLN activists were killed and five others were injured in a shooting in the capital, San Salvador.
Observers said it was one of the worst political attacks in decades.
Tensions have been rising in advance of the legislative polls, as civil society groups raised concerns that a strong showing for Bukele’s party could see him consolidate power.
Human rights advocates say the president has shown authoritarian tendencies – an accusation he and his supporters have rebuffed.
With a majority in Congress, Bukele would be able to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor’s office.
A two-thirds majority would let the New Ideas appoint high-level government officials, such as the attorney general and five of the country’s 15 Supreme Court justices.
“I’m going to vote for [Nayib’s party] because he has helped us a lot,” Wendy Henriquez, a 46-year-old street vendor, told Al Jazeera ahead of the vote.
Officials expect preliminary results will be released a few hours after polls close at 5pm (23:00 GMT) on Sunday.