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El Salvador's 'coolest dictator' Bukele wins supermajority in Congress after tense vote counting

Bukele was re-elected for another term on February 4, winning 84.7 per cent of the vote, despite the country's Constitution barring consecutive terms. Bukele and his New Ideas party are widely expected to bring steep changes in the country's Constitution after gaining firm control in governance.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Salvador Published on: February 20, 2024 12:57 IST
El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, legislative elections
Image Source : AP El Salvador President Nayib Bukele

San Salvador: El Salvador's self-proclaimed 'coolest dictator', President Nayib Bukele, and his New Ideas party won the supermajority in Congress that allows the leader free reign in governance, electoral officials announced on Monday. The announcement comes after a painstaking vote-counting process, which has raised the hackles of electoral watchdogs and the country’s weak opposition.

Bukele was re-elected for another term on February 4, winning 84.7 per cent of the vote, but speculations persisted over his party's performance in the legislative elections. Officials on Monday announced that New Ideas won 54 seats of the 60 congressional seats, while allied parties won an additional three seats. 

"El Salvador has broken all the records of all democracies in the entire history of the world," said Bukele, declaring victory before the elections were announced. “Never has a project won with the number of votes we have won today,” he added. “It is literally the highest percentage in all of history.”

The supermajority effectively gives the 42-year-old Bukele even firmer control of all three branches of government. He is highly popular in El Salvador due to his war on the country’s gangs, which resulted in a sharp drop in violence. However, Bukele was also accused of using undemocratic moves, such as carrying out an electoral reform that critics said stacked the votes in favour of his party in legislative and local elections.

Bukele and El Salvador's Congress

El Salvador's Congress in 2023 passed electoral reforms that reduced the number of seats in the unicameral chamber to 60 from 84, a move expected to favor New Ideas. Bukele needs Congress to continue emergency measures approved month-to-month for his gang crackdown. He has clashed with opposition parties in the Congress blocking his initiatives.

Bukele even showed up to Congress with armed military officers as he proceeded to bring major electoral changes. Congressional control will also potentially allow him to alter the constitution – which bans leaders from holding consecutive terms – to stay in power. He already attracted criticism by running for re-election.

In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this month, Bukele’s vice president left the possibility of seeking a third term open if the country’s constitution is changed. New Ideas’ grip on Congress could also allow the leader to address the country’s slowing economy and rising poverty rates - allowing them to expel critical voices from courts and other government offices.

The congressional vote count has become a subject of scrutiny after a number of irregularities and glitches resulted in the collapse of the system transmitting results, prompting El Salvador's electoral body to call for a manual count of the legislative votes and part of the presidential votes. Opposition members highlighted alleged irregularities, such as ballots being marked with a pen instead of the designated crayon or not being folded. 

Bukele's rise to prominence

Tyler Mattiace, an American researcher at Human Rights Watch, considers Bukele "one of the biggest risks for human rights and for democracy that we see in Latin America right now". "Bukele is incredibly popular, not only at home in El Salvador,” Mattiace said.

When he was first elected in 2019, Bukele, a former publicity manager of Palestinian descent, became Latin America’s youngest leader. Fond of spectacle, he has attracted some of the world’s biggest names, recently hosting the Miss Universe pageant and pulling in soccer star Lionel Messi to play a pre-season match. His rise to wide recognition came in 2022 with his harsh war on the gangs that had long terrorised El Salvador.

On March 26, 2022, drug gangs killed 62 people in a single day, after which Bukele sought and received special powers: arrests without warrants, no access to a lawyer, and broad authority to intercept communications. thousands of troops surrounded neighborhoods or entire towns. They went door-to-door grabbing people. The government has acknowledged at least 7,000 were mistakenly swept up and later released.

Under a state of emergency, his government has locked up 76,000 people — more than 1 per cent of the population — in prisons where rights groups have documented cases of torture and the deaths of more than 150 inmates. The government also has been accused of systematic human rights abuses. The crackdown has been tough, but people have reclaimed their neighborhoods. El Salvador’s homicide rate has shriveled to among the lowest in the Americas, when just a few years ago the country was deemed one of the most dangerous places in the world. In fulfilling his promise to bring security, something the country’s two traditional parties failed at, Bukele has gained the adoration of millions of Salvadorans.

In 2020, Bukele entered the Legislative Assembly with soldiers after lawmakers balked at approving a security loan proposal. He clashed repeatedly with the then opposition-controlled congress during the pandemic when he tried to impose some of the region's toughest restrictions and lawmakers refused to grant him emergency powers.

(with AP inputs)



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