el salvador president bukele poised for another landslide as voters head to polls

El Salvador President Bukele poised for another landslide as voters head to polls

el salvador president bukele poised for another landslide as voters head to polls

By Nelson Renteria and Diego Oré

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – Salvadorans head to polls on Sunday in elections expected to hand President Nayib Bukele another landslide victory, with many happy to overlook the young leader’s authoritarian drift after he crushed gang violence paralyzing life across the country.

Wildly popular, Bukele, 42, has campaigned on the success of his draconian security strategy that saw authorities suspend civil liberties to arrest thousands of suspected gang members without charges. The detentions lead to a collapse in nationwide murder rates and transformed the poor Central American nation that was once among the world’s most dangerous.

Polls show most voters now appear set to reward Bukele for decimating the crime groups that made life intolerable for El Salvador’s 6.3 million people and fueled waves of migration to the U.S.

“I would vote for Bukele because of the work he has done so far,” said Juan Carlos Rosales, 44, a systems engineer in the capital San Salvador. “The improvement in security is palpable.”

A firebrand politician who often spars with foreign leaders and foes on social media, Bukele came to power in 2019 trouncing El Salvador’s traditional parties with a vow to eliminate gang violence and rejuvenate the country’s stagnant economy.

Since then, he has used his New Ideas party’s supermajority in the legislative assembly to reshape courts and institutions, solidifying his grip on key parts of the government. He also championed the introduction of Bitcoin as a legal tender, drawing criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Bukele is set to be first Salvadoran president in more than 100 years to be re-elected. Last year, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal permitted him to run for a second term even though the country’s constitution prohibits it. Opponents voiced fears Bukele would seek to rule for life, following President Daniel Ortega from next-door Nicaragua.

Rights groups have warned El Salvador’s democracy is under attack. Bukele has largely dismissed those concerns, at one point changing his profile on X, the social media platform, to say: “World’s coolest dictator”.

Salvadorans seem unfazed, with polls showing about 80% of them support him.

“There is still a huge amount to do but, step by step, we will resolve entire decades of looting and neglect,” Bukele wrote on X this week.

Five other presidential candidates are contesting the elections, including politicians from the former leftist guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which between them governed for 30 years until 2019.

Once re-elected, Bukele’s biggest challenge is likely to be a sputtering economy, Central America’s slowest growing during his time in power. More than a quarter of Salvadorans live in poverty.

Extreme poverty has doubled and private investment has tumbled. There has not been much momentum on Bukele’s highly publicized plans for Bitcoin City, a tax-free crypto haven powered by geothermal energy from a volcano.

The IMF, which is negotiating a $1.3 billion bailout with El Salvador, in late 2023 described the country’s fiscal situation as “fragile”.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria and Diego Ore; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and David Gregorio)

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