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El Salvador votes in presidential election that the ‘world’s coolest dictator’ has clear path to win - 116 Views

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El Salvador votes in presidential election that the ‘world’s coolest dictator’ has clear path to win

El Salvador — Salvadorans are headed out to vote Sunday in a presidential and legislative elections that’s largely about the tradeoff between security and democracy.

With soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition, Nayib Bukele is almost certainly headed for a second term as president.

El Salvador’s constitution prohibits reelection. Nonetheless, about eight out of 10 of voters support Bukele, according to a January poll from the University of Central America. That’s despite Bukele taking steps throughout his first term that lawyers and critics say chip away at the country’s system of checks and balances.

But El Salvador’s traditional parties from the left and right that created the vacuum that Bukele first filled in 2019 remain a shambles. Alternating in power for some three decades, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) were thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and inefficacy. Their presidential candidates this year are polling in the low single digits.

Bukele, the self-described “world’s coolest dictator,” has gained fame for his brutal crackdown on gangs, in which more than 1% of the country’s population has been arrested.

While his administration is accused of committing widespread human rights abuses, violence has also plummeted, in a country known just a few years ago as one of the most dangerous in the world.

Because of that, voters like 55-year-old businesswoman Marleny Mena are willing to overlook concerns that Bukele has taken undemocratic steps to concentrate power.

Formerly a street vendor in San Salvador’s once gang-controlled downtown, Mena said she used to be scared to walk around the city, fearful she could accidentally cross from one gang’s territory to another, with potentially serious consequences. Since Bukele began his crackdown, that fear has dissipated.

“He just needs a little bit more time, the time he needs to keep improving the country,” Mena said.

In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Bukele made no public campaign appearances. Instead, the populist plastered his social media and television screens across the country with a simple message recorded from his couch: If he and his New Ideas party didn’t win elections this year, the “war with the gangs would be put at risk.”

“The opposition will be able to achieve its true and only plan, to free the gang members and use them to return to power,”

he said.

Still, the 42-year-old Bukele and his party are increasingly looked to as a case study for a wider global rise in authoritarianism.

“There’s this growing rejection of the basic principles of democracy and human rights, and support for authoritarian populism among people who feel that, concepts like democracy and human rights and due process have failed them,”

said Tyler Mattiace, Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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