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  • Salvadorans cast their vote in the presidential elections, Feb. 4, 2024.

    Salvadorans cast their vote in the presidential elections, Feb. 4, 2024. | Photo: X/ @noficciongt

Published 4 February 2024

Salvadorans vote amid a "State of Exception", where a president seeks re-election despite the national constitution expressly prohibiting it.

The presidential and legislative elections won't be just another elections. Salvadorans will vote in a context of a state of exception, where, for the first time in 90 years, a president seeks re-election despite the national constitution prohibiting it.


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Faced with an evident outcome, where can hope be found in a territory where reducing inequality and poverty remain historical debts?

It was February 9, 2020, and "something" was breaking in El Salvador, and it wasn't the party system that had characterized representative politics since the Peace Accords.

Nayib Bukele, the "cool" president, the region's surprise, stormed the Legislative Assembly with dozens of heavily armed military members in a vote that turned adverse to his territorial and social control projects.

He had been in office for just eight months. His popularity, built on slogans in municipal events and social media, had enough legitimacy to introduce the changes traditional politics needed. However, it was that antidemocratic act that alarmed the world, labeled by the international press as an "attempted coup."

Since then, everything has accelerated to consolidate a model of political violence, but it also sparked the emergence of popular coordinators against authoritarianism.

On February 4, Salvadorans will vote in a context of a state of exception, where, for the first time in 90 years, a president seeks re-election despite the national constitution expressly prohibiting it.

In addition to institutional components, the election has regional implications. Nayib Bukele has become a model for various right-wing politicians. His popularity among conservative sectors has grown, championed by a security model that disregards human rights and democratic guarantees such as the right to defense or presumption of innocence. The Sunday result could further legitimize the "Bukele model."

His main political capital lies in a reduction in homicides that plagued the country for over 20 years, a product of social violence. Images of kneeling and semi-naked gang members went around the world, making him the model of "iron fist" in the region.

Bukele's main focus for re-election isn't a university, a road, a port, not even the luxurious library built by Chinese cooperation. His main flag is the construction of a mega prison to house gang members, many of whom were arrested before his government.

The basis for these achievements, as Bukele himself claims, lies in the establishment of a state of exception that is about to reach two years. If we add the months of the pandemic, it could be said that Bukele has governed at least 70 percent of his term without full constitutional guarantees.

The country is experiencing one of its lowest homicide rates in years, with a caveat: the government decided to exclude gang-related deaths and deaths within prisons from the official statistics, which, as of May 2023, according to the NGO Cristosal, were estimated to be at least 160. This figure has grown in recent months.

The other side of gang detentions lies in thousands of innocent people detained. Since the state of exception began, the government has released more than 7,000 people who, according to official sources, could not prove ties to gangs and, in some cases, remained detained for over 9 months. It also leaves El Salvador with the world's highest incarceration rate.

If we base it on the detention data of the last two years, added to the pre-state of exception prison population, we find that currently, 1.6 percent of the Salvadoran population is in prison.

What is voted on Sunday?

More than 6.2 million Salvadorans are registered to vote in the elections; between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Those residing abroad have already started voting remotely since January 6, provided their address - according to the ID - is registered abroad.

They will determine whether the current president, Nayib Bukele, is the first president in the country's history to be re-elected for a second term. Although there are five other candidates competing: Manuel Flores, from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN); Joel Sanchez, from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA); Luis Parada, from Our Time; Jose Renderos, from Solidarity Force; and Marina Murillo, from Salvadoran Patriotic Fraternity.

In addition, the composition of the Legislative Assembly will be determined through the vote of 60 deputies after the reform that reduced the number of citizen representatives from 84.

On March 3, elections will be held for municipal executives and the 20 seats in the Central American Parliament.

The keys to the election

Not everything is repression and a finely tuned propaganda strategy in Bukele's politics. To achieve his goals of concentrating even more power, it was necessary to make legal changes. Here are some points you need to know:

The reduction of the number of deputies in the Legislative Assembly from 84 to 60 was accompanied by a change in the seat allocation methodology, which previously relied on the quotient and remainder formula towards the D'Hondt system or proportional allocation.

This combination of reforms opens up scenarios where the opposition may get 20 percent of the votes in a department and yet not secure any seats. This paves the way for a hegemonic party or even a one-party system.

The reforms also reduced the number of municipalities per municipality from 262 to 44. This was in response to criticisms of municipal administrations being financially suffocated by Bukele himself, impacting the local image of his party.

To ensure that the poor image of their mayors does not impact the election, they decided to separate them. An electoral but also political strategy that seeks to centralize power further and reduce the margin for the emergence of local leaderships.

The election appears to be one of the most unequal in years. The atmosphere in El Salvador is not one of electoral competition, but more like a plebiscite, where official advertising dominates almost all scheduled media spaces, both traditional and digital.

In addition, the government has resorted to clientelist strategies and fear campaigns in recent days to mobilize participation, which could be low.

Bukele's high popularity ratings and the little knowledge of opposition candidates suggest he may comfortably win re-election. However, this is not enough. To sustain his narrative as the most popular president in Latin America (and the world), Bukele also needs to win with record numbers.

The population abroad will also play a role in this election. Bukele established a mechanism to ensure extensive participation in what he sees as one of his most radicalized cores, mainly the population in the United States.

This electoral format was strongly criticized for the absence of identity validation mechanisms and voter audits. The overseas result could consolidate the triumph of the ruling party.

The opposition appears fragmented, with the FMLN as the only left-wing expression seeking to regain some lost ground in recent years and reinforce the self-esteem of its membership. Special attention in this contest will be on the possibility of re-election for Anabel Belloso, one of the left's most beloved politicians, who will attempt a third term in the department of El Salvador.

Re-election was legitimized by the United States, demonstrating Bukele's alignment with the interests of the regional right and dismantling the idea that some sectors of Latin American progressivism still hold of the Salvadoran president as "anti-imperialist."

In the same line, a group of progressive congress members, led by Ilhan Omar, sent a letter to the Biden administration, emphasizing the importance of not looking the other way. They also insisted on the need to cut military and police aid to the Salvadoran government.

What does Bukele's presidency leave?

"Despite having a somewhat safer country than before, Bukele has not solved the country's main problems," said Henry Barillas, a communicator for Radio Balsamo, a community radio station.

"El Salvador has regressed in all the institutional advances it had achieved after the peace accords of 1992. We no longer have a separation of powers, and power is concentrated in the executive, forming a completely autocratic government that many would say is already a dictatorship," he added.

For the communicator, "El Salvador is concluding a period with a state of exception that has lasted almost two years, which has thrown more than twenty thousand innocent people into prison, captured arbitrarily, and to this date, at least two hundred twenty-five people have died within the prisons, meaning in the hands and responsibility of the State."

However, Bukele "has managed to capitalize on the emotions, the feelings of many people, has gained popularity and acceptance from many people, and is going for re-election without any strong opposition to prevent a blatant violation of the Constitution. And if he wins, he will become an illegal, unconstitutional president."

For Anabel Belloso, the most recognized left-wing candidate for deputy in El Salvador, setbacks are also observed in social conditions. "These 5 years of government have meant setbacks in terms of human and democratic rights and the real living conditions of the people, the majority of the vulnerable population. Poverty has doubled, extreme poverty as well."

An aspect rarely analyzed when talking about the Salvadoran president abroad is his economic policy. For Anabel, these align with a neoliberal scheme.

"We have seen more voracious measures where taxes are forgiven for big business, no steps are taken to seek a progressive tax system, on the contrary, they refuse to implement measures that could lighten the pockets of the poorest families."

Like Henry, Anabel Belloso believes that re-election will increase "persecution and repression against those voices that question his abuses of power, dissent, and are brave enough to speak out against injustices."

And what are the challenges?

For Barillas, outside the election context, the daily challenge for those involved in community media in El Salvador is to "maintain a critical voice and the defense of human rights," working for "transformative social communication," "promoting critical thinking, providing truthful information, and telling the stories that are not told in other media." Especially in a context where "freedoms are being disappeared as it had only happened in times of dictatorship."

Regarding the role of the FMLN, a party that once consolidated popular demands, Anabel points out that "we must strengthen social struggle, which is alongside the people, alongside the organizations, and also political struggle and political-diplomatic work, which is fundamental. It was in other contexts during the military dictatorship, and I have no doubt that with the authoritarian scheme we have today with this government, which could worsen in a possible second term, the FMLN can play that role, being close to the people, being an organizer and mobilizer."

Faced with a concerning panorama, holding on to expressions of resistance remains. If anything, Salvadoran and Latin American history shows that the popular and anti-authoritarian path is built one step at a time.


Nayib Bukele
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