El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has declared himself the winner of national elections that revolved around the trade-off between security and democracy.
Bukele on Sunday claimed to have won more than 85 percent of the vote despite electoral authorities not yet releasing the official results.
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“According to our numbers, we have won the presidential election with more than 85 percent of the votes and a minimum of 58 of 60 deputies in the [Legislative] Assembly,” Bukele said on X, describing the outcome as a “record in the entire democratic history of the world”.
According to preliminary data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on Monday, Bukele had 83 percent of the vote against 7 percent from his nearest competitor with ballots from about 71 percent of polling stations tallied in a troubled process plagued by glitches.
Thousands of Bukele’s supporters clad in cyan blue and waving flags thronged San Salvador’s central square to celebrate his re-election, which the 42-year-old leader termed a “referendum” on his government.
Standing on the balcony of the National Palace on Sunday evening, Bukele said El Salvador had made history. “Salvadorans have given the example to the entire world that any problem can be solved if there is the will to do it,” he said.
Politicians also congratulated Bukele on his election win, including Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena.
China’s embassy in the capital, San Salvador, congratulated Bukele and his party for the “historic victory”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also congratulated Bukele.
“We look forward to continuing to prioritize good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights in El Salvador under the Root Causes Strategy,” Blinken said in a post on the social media platform X.
Congratulations to President-elect Nayib Bukele of El Salvador on his electoral victory. We look forward to continuing to prioritize good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights in El Salvador under the Root Causes Strategy.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) February 5, 2024
With soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition, gang-busting Bukele had been widely expected to comfortably secure a second term.
For the first time since El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, the Central American country held the election under a state of emergency imposed for Bukele’s crackdown on gangs, which slashed homicide rates but drew criticism for human rights violations.
Reporting from San Salvador, Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo said most people hoped a victory for Bukele would mean the country would be able to build on the successes of a reduction in crime, doing away with gang violence and tackling other serious problems, such as poverty.
“It’s not so much about who is going to win but rather how the country is going to move forward beyond gains it has made in crime reduction,” Rapalo said.
With little need to campaign for himself, Bukele focused on promoting his Nuevas Ideas party, which holds 56 seats in the 84-member assembly.
The overall number of seats has been reduced to 60 under a reform he led, which critics said will make it much harder for smaller parties to get enough votes to get in.
In 2022, the legislature approved a law allowing Salvadorans to vote abroad. Under that reform, all foreign ballots – which tend to favour Bukele – will count towards the department of San Salvador, which has the most undecided seats, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO promoting human rights.
The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance and leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front had alternated power for about three decades but were discredited for corruption and inefficacy. Their presidential candidates polled in the low single digits.
‘Fragile’ economy key concern
Bukele, who often spars with foreign leaders and foes on social media, came to power in 2019, trouncing El Salvador’s traditional parties with a promise to eliminate gang violence and rejuvenate the stagnant economy.
He has campaigned on the success of his draconian security strategy, which saw authorities suspend civil liberties to arrest thousands of suspected gang members without charge. The detentions led to a collapse in the national murder rate and transformed the poor nation, which was once among the world’s most dangerous.
“I would vote for Bukele because of the work he has done so far,” Juan Carlos Rosales, 44, a systems engineer in San Salvador, told the Reuters news agency. “The improvement in security is palpable.”
Despite Bukele’s solid base, some analysts question how long voters will back his strongman approach, particularly as more people feel its sting.
Under his rule, El Salvador has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world with an estimated 2 percent of its adult population behind bars.
Bukele has credited his “mano dura” or “iron fist” tactics for causing the number of homicides to tumble to 7.8 per every 100,000 people, the lowest in Central America.
But rights groups have warned El Salvador’s democracy is under attack.
Bukele has largely dismissed those concerns, at one point changing his profile on X to say: “World’s coolest dictator”.
His biggest challenge is the state of the economy, Central America’s slowest-growing during his time in power. More than a quarter of Salvadorans live in poverty.
The International Monetary Fund, which is negotiating a $1.3bn bailout with El Salvador, described the country’s fiscal situation in late 2023 as “fragile”.
In a post on X this week, Bukele pledged to bring about changes. “There is still a huge amount to do,” he said, “but, step by step, we will resolve entire decades of looting and neglect.”