El Salvador’s strongman is destined to ride an avalanche of checks and balances

El Salvador’s government has imprisoned thousands of innocent people, suspended key civil liberties indefinitely, and flooded the streets with soldiers. Now the president who oversees it all, Nayib Bukele, is accused of violating the constitution by seeking re-election.

And even his vice presidential running mate admits that their goal is to “eliminate” what he sees as the broken democracy of the past.

Scope polls show that most Salvadorans support Mr. Bukele, often not despite his strongman tactics, but Why of them.

In Sunday’s election, voters are expected to hand Bukele and his New Ideas party a resounding victory, cementing the millennial president’s control over every branch of government.

The main reason, analysts say, is that the 42-year-old leader has succeeded in a seemingly impossible feat: decimating the ferocious gangs that had transformed El Salvador into one of the most violent places in the world.

“Some call it a dictatorship,” said Sebastián Morales Rivera, a fisherman who lives in a former criminal gang stronghold. “But I would rather live under the dictatorship of a sane man than under the dictatorship of a group of psychopathic maniacs.”

For more than two decades, warring gangs have terrorized El Salvador, strangling the economy, killing civilians at will and driving a wave of migration to the United States.

The two parties that governed the country did little to control the bloodshed, elevating presidents who enriched themselves and leaving their fellow Salvadorans to be hunted like prey by criminals.

Bukele, a promising millennial change-maker from behind, was swept into office in 2019 by voters disgusted with the political establishment. And while the repression that followed limited freedoms, it also produced the results that many desired.

“To these people who say that democracy is being dismantled, my answer is yes: we are not dismantling it, we are eliminating it, we are replacing it with something new,” said Félix Ulloa, candidate for re-election as vice president. next to Mr. Bukele.

The democratic system that has existed in El Salvador for years, Ulloa said, has only benefited dishonest politicians and left the country with tens of thousands of people killed. “It was rotten, it was corrupt, it was bloody,” he said.

With triumph at the polls on Sunday, Bukele would join a class of global leaders who would win repeated elections even as they were accused of undermining the foundations of democratic governance.

The leaders of India, Turkey and Hungary, for example, have all won multiple mandates at the polls despite being accused of authoritarian tendencies. In the United States, Donald J. Trump is closing in on the Republican nomination for president as he faces criminal prosecution for staging an insurrection.

With each victory, analysts say, these charismatic strongmen force their countries to grapple with an increasingly urgent question: How much does the system of checks and balances, once considered a foundation of liberal society, really matter to voters?

Nowhere is this being asked more openly than in El Salvador, where Bukele enjoys the support of around 80% of the population. polls showand many seem happy to give him absolute dominion over the country if it guarantees their security.

Mr. Bukele “needs control over everyone because not everyone has their own mind,” Morales said. “I would re-elect him three times if necessary.”

According to legal scholars, El Salvador’s constitution bars presidents from running for consecutive terms. But in 2021, Bukele’s party, which has an absolute majority in Congress, replaced the top Supreme Court justices, who then reinterpreted the constitution to allow him to run again.

“This is no longer a constitutional republic,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal, a Salvadoran human rights group. “It is a de facto authoritarian regime.”

Some human rights advocates wonder whether Bukele will be able to find a way to stay in office long-term. Bukele said on Twitter Spaces that he is not seeking “indefinite re-election”, stressing that “current rules do not allow this”.

But Ulloa said the vast majority of the country actually wants Bukele to be president “for life.”

After an explosion of violence in the spring of 2022, the government imposed a state of emergency and launched a campaign of mass arrests without due process.

According to human rights groups, around 75,000 people have been jailed, including 7,000 who have since been released and thousands of others who are not gang members but remain behind bars. The government built a mega prison to house them all.

Cristosal and Human Rights Watch they reported that detainees were being tortured and deprived of food. Their fate was decided in mass trials with judges whose identities were kept secret. “Those are crimes against humanity,” Bullock said.

But the state of emergency, which has lasted for almost two years, has transformed the country. The killings plummeted. Extortion payments have reportedly decreased.

Concerns about Salvadorans crossing the U.S. border fell by about a third during the last fiscal year — when overall migration soared — a drop that experts attribute in part to a new sense of safety on the streets.

Many would consider Irma Mancía de Olmedo a victim of the new police state.

His son, Mario Olmedo Mancía, was arrested by authorities on a Friday morning in April 2022 as he left home to get a haircut. Since then his family has had no news of him.

“I don’t know how he is, nothing,” Ms. Mancía de Olmedo said, sobbing.

Ms Mancía de Olmedo says Mario was not involved in gangs and has documents showing he worked in a call centre.

But even in her resentment, the 56-year-old has nothing but admiration for Mr. Bukele.

“He did everything he could to make the country better,” he said. “If some of us suffer the consequences, well, these things happen.”

For years, Ms. Mancía de Olmedo had never dared to visit her elderly mother, who lived in a neighborhood controlled by the MS-13 gang. She goes there regularly now.

There are still pockets of resistance to Bukele, particularly among families who say their relatives have been wrongly imprisoned. And the question remains whether the government is truly committed to prosecuting gang leaders.

American officials say that before the crackdown, Bukele’s administration had negotiated with criminal gang leaders for a reduction in killings in exchange for prison benefits. Senior Salvadoran officials, the Department of Justice says, helped an MS-13 boss flee the country, even though the United States had requested his extradition.

Mr Bukele has denied making deals with criminal gangs and the prosecution has had no obvious impact on his huge popularity.

A former publicist, Bukele doesn’t spend much time touring the country or organizing rallies: He is a star on Facebook, TikTok and X, where his messages reach millions of people.

Most Salvadorans believe that Congress should not stand in Bukele’s way because only he can solve the country’s problems, according to research by the University Institute for Public Opinion of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University.

“His charisma has been decisive not only in the way the population evaluates him, but in the way it interprets the reality of the country,” said Laura Andrade, director of the institute.

Bukele sells himself as “a messianic figure, a savior figure who is saving a people who have been violated by other leaders,” he said.

It’s not just Salvadorans who are buying space. Bukele has earned admirers across the Western Hemisphere, especially in violent countries like Ecuador, where the recently elected president has promised to build prisons just like Bukele’s.

El Salvador’s opposition is in tatters and its five candidates are barely registering at the polls. The ruling New Ideas party’s campaign, meanwhile, is mostly about promising people more than Bukele and stoking fears of losing everything he has given them.

The threat worked. Many of those who live in neighborhoods that were once war zones say they believe that placing anyone other than Bukele in charge could put their safety at risk.

“They will free the prisoners,” Morales said. “All politicians are manipulable.”

Gabriel Labrador contributed reporting from San Salvador.