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El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele set for landslide election victory

<i>Jessica Orellana/Reuters</i><br/>Election workers count ballots at a polling station during the presidential and parliamentary elections in San Salvador
Jessica Orellana/Reuters
Election workers count ballots at a polling station during the presidential and parliamentary elections in San Salvador

By David Shortell, Stefano Pozzebon and Martin Goillandeau, CNN

(CNN) — El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is headed for what appears to be a landslide victory in the presidential election, with more than 70% of the votes counted as of Monday, according to preliminary results from the country’s Supreme Electoral Court (TSE).

His party is enjoying a wide lead over the opposition. Preliminary results showed Bukele’s Nueva Ideas securing 1,662,313 votes compared to runner-up FMLN’s 139,025 votes as of Monday afternoon.

The results were widely expected in a country where Bukele enjoys immense popularity over a crackdown on gangs that drove down El Salvador’s once-sky-high levels of violence.

Bukele had already declared himself the winner in the race late Sunday, saying: “Today, El Salvador has broken all the records of all the democracies in the world. Since democracies have existed, never has a project won with the quantity of votes that we have won today.”

Earlier on Monday, the federal election authority said it asked polling stations across the country to manually record the results of Sunday’s presidential election after electronic transmission of results stopped updating overnight.

The court said it took its decision based on the country’s electoral code and after actions that “hindered” the transmission of primary results and “other factors beyond the control of the (court),” without elaborating further.

Polling stations are now manually report voting records, with both election officials and party representatives taking “photographic or scanned evidence” of the records before sending them to the court.

Bukele, 42, faced little in the way of organized opposition and enjoys one of the highest favorability ratings in the region, regularly polling above 70% in independent surveys.

His supporters laud Bukele’s crackdown on criminal gangs under an extended state of emergency that reversed the country’s murder rate, once the highest in the world.

However, mass arrests have also triggered outcry from human rights groups, who allege Bukele’s government has detained innocent people and subjected prisoners to dehumanizing conditions behind bars, including torture. El Salvador now has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

The debate between the two sides has elevated an election in a small Central American state into a broader referendum on the extent that voters are willing to relinquish basic liberties in exchange for relative peace and safety.

It is clear among the Salvadoran public “that there is a strong bottom-up mandate to continue with the state of exception that has brought security even as it has completely shredded any kind of presumption of innocence or rights to trial or to a lawyer for anyone the government is interested in going after,” Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN.

An overwhelming win for Bukele would likely give the young leader more leeway to reform El Salvador in his heavy-handed vision. Bukele has not shied away from comparisons to autocrats – once setting his Twitter biography to read “world’s coolest dictator” – and his government has said they are “eliminating” democracy in the country.

Bukele’s ability to run for a second term is a clear example of the effort: with El Salvador’s constitution barring presidents from seeking re-election, the country’s Congress in 2021 replaced the top judges on the Supreme Court with a new class willing to grant him the power. Bukele stepped down from the presidency late last year to focus on his reelection. He is set to be sworn in for his second term in June.

In at least 13 countries in Latin America, most of the population “wouldn’t mind an undemocratic government rising to power if it resolved problems,” according to a 2023 poll by Latinobarometro.

Still, under Bukele, the country’s economy has stagnated, with low growth rates and an unmet demand for jobs. Foreign direct investment in the country has also not risen in line with the country’s newfound security, with polls indicating that companies are reluctant to invest in El Salvador given the “decreasing legal certainty” and autocratic lurch in the government, Freeman said.

“It’s notable Bukele said nothing about the economy in his victory speech, and very little about the economy on the campaign trail, probably because it’s a very weak issue for him,” he said.

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