SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — He stripped jailed gang members to their underwear and then made them sit chest to back during COVID-19. He arrested people violating quarantine rules even if they were just buying groceries. He ignored Supreme Court rulings and summoned the army to storm congress. He even joked that he’s a dictator himself.
But Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, a divisive figure internationally, is more loved than ever at home, and his power is growing.
He won control of the country’s congress in a decisive victory over the two establishment parties in midterm elections this weekend. Bukele’s party, New Ideas, won 56 of 84 seats in the legislature, and an allied political party won five more seats.
“Our people have waited 40 years for this,” Bukele, 39, wrote on Twitter following the election.
The results were, in a word, a landslide, ensuring that Bukele will have near-absolute control over the tiny Central American country with strong ties to the U.S. Around a fifth of Salvadorans live in the States. Bukele’s super-majority in the legislature gives him power to not only push through new laws but also ratify debt, elect a new attorney general, and appoint Supreme Court justices.
The new legislators take their seats on May 1.
Bukele’s success is a measure of his magnetism and youth — he favors Twitter, rap music, and wearing baseball caps backwards — and his optimistic vision for the future. He frequently talks about building a country where residents don’t have to migrate because of lack of jobs, and his 2019 campaign slogan was that without corruption, there is enough money.
But the vote also shows lingering fury at El Salvador’s two establishment parties: the leftist FMLN, the party of guerrilla fighters during the country’s 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, and the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which fought them. Both parties have been stained by one corruption scandal after another, including allegations that former presidents stole hundreds of millions of dollars.
After Sunday’s election, it seems unclear what future lies ahead for them. ARENA won 14 seats and FMLN, just four.
“Where is the FLMN? I don’t see them!” one street vendor shouted, laughing to himself, in the plaza Gerado Barrios in the center of San Salvador on Monday, a day after the election. The joy among people in the plaza was palpable.
“I hope the country will get a lot better now. The legislators we had previously didn’t do anything, and the mayors even less,” said Rosa Palacio, 42, who works in commercial sales. She rejected the idea that Bukele has authoritarian-like tendencies. “He has behaved well with the people, and the people have spoken.”
Few could say much about the candidates they voted for or their platforms; their vote was a reflection of their support for Bukele, and against the establishment parties. Bukele himself professes to have no political ideology. He started his career with the FMLN before the lefitst party expelled him for reasons that are disputed. He joined the ultra-right GANA to run for president in 2019, and has since turned his party, New Ideas, into a political juggernaut.
He has referred to abortion as “genocide” and advocated for a tough-on-gangs approach that has endeared himself to many citizens. The brutal Mara gangs have long controlled vast swathes of El Salvador, and combine their power with those of the country’s political elites. Even Bukele has been accused of secretly negotiating with them.
“He has put security throughout the city. Before, it was a lot worse. Now you feel a little safer under this government,” said Walter Amilcar Amina, 49, a carpenter and street vendor. He too was comfortable with Bukele’s near absolute power. “It’s better because now we are sure that we won’t see the same things that were happening before.”
Even Bukele’s strict quarantine measures didn’t dampen voters enthusiasm - in fact, it was the opposite. Many mentioned the boxes of food such as rice, sugar, beans and other basics that he sent residents during the pandemic. Some even received $300 “bonuses” to help offset the lack of work. The handouts cemented Bukele’s reputation for helping its citizens.
That the pandemic helped Bukele politically is unique and stands in contrast to many other leaders in many other Latin American countries, some of whom stand accused of giving scarce vaccines to their friends and family. Two ministers in Peru and one in Argentina have resigned following a public backlash.
But if there was elation among Bukele’s supporters, it was matched by the despair among his skeptics. Salvadoran journalists who have written critically about Bukele face criminal investigations into their work and personal life, are banned from presidential press conferences, and are regularly attacked by the president and top government officials.
“Like an adrift ship that moves with the waves of popularity, thanks to its propaganda machine in social networks and related media, the president and his government manage to move away from and then get closer to the citizenry at their convenience, all the while lying and destroying, without measuring the consequences,” wrote political scientist Héctor Pacheco in the publication El Faro following the election.
In February 2020, Bukele drew international condemnation after he ordered heavily armed soldiers and police to enter Congress in an effort to pressure the legislature to approve a $109 million foreign loan for police vehicles, video surveillance equipment, and other security gear.
Bukele cozied up to former U.S President Donald Trump during his administration. The two got on well in large part because of declining migration from El Salvador and Bukele’s hardline immigration policies limiting asylum seekers to the U.S. But relations could be strained with President Joe Biden, as the new administration seeks to undo some of Trump’s policies and because of Bukele’s perceived authoritarian tendencies.
Last month, the Biden administration turned down a meeting request with Bukele when he took an unannounced trip to Washington, according to the Associated Press, a pointed rebuke of the Salvadoran leader and a signal that relations between the two countries are under review.
Bukele later lambasted the story as “a total lie.”