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Bukele, combative but popular, could tighten his grip in El Salvador elections

MEXICO CITY – In his first two years in office, El Salvador’s president brought soldiers into the country’s legislature, challenged Supreme Court rulings, posted photos of scantily clad gang members piled up on the floor of a prison and sent the army to detain anyone breaking quarantine.

Salvadorans can’t get enough of him. President Nayib Bukele, who enjoys an approval rating of around 90% in the polls, is expected to further expand his term in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, which could bring a decisive victory for his party.

The vote could also endow Mr Bukele with sweeping new powers: control of an opposition-dominated legislature, as well as the ability to start changing the constitution and possibly remake the government in his image. If his party and allies win two-thirds of the seats, they can replace the attorney general and appoint new judges to the Supreme Court.

In an interview, Mr Bukele’s vice president Felix Ulloa admitted that some of the president’s actions were questionable.

“The president has had some explosions,” conceded Mr. Ulloa, “but they should be understood as such, as explosions, as errors, and not as a trend, as an attitude, as the birth of a new dictatorship . “

Mr Bukele’s tendency towards confrontation will be tempered, Mr Ulloa said, once he has a legislature that is not determined to block its agenda. He called on the world to take the president’s measure based on how he rules after the election.

“We will be able to assess the true character of this government, whether it is a democratic government serving the interests of the Salvadoran people,” Ulloa said. “If, on the contrary, it turns out that the president is, as has been claimed, an authoritarian who wants to concentrate power and impose an undemocratic model, then that will also prove to be.

Part of what caught Mr Bukele’s attention is his approach, which can only be described as very online. A self-proclaimed 39-year-old political outsider, the president delights his supporters by tracking down his enemies on Twitter and reveling in his triumphs on TikTok. He uses social media to ransack the Salvadoran press, attack the attorney general and declare his refusal to comply with Supreme Court rulings.

And although Mr Bukele has helped El Salvador control the spread of the coronavirus better than many of its neighbors, he has drawn international condemnation from human rights groups for his strongman displays and repressive measures. taken during the pandemic.

Last year he sent soldiers to the Legislature to try to pressure lawmakers to approve a loan to fund law enforcement. (Vice President Ulloa called the deployment a “mistake”.)

Mr Bukele also dispatched soldiers and police to detain people breaking quarantine in so-called containment centers – then ignored several Supreme Court orders to end the practice. And it has drawn widespread criticism for posting photos of prisoners huddled together in their underwear.

Critics fear that if he gains unhindered control over the country after Sunday’s election, he will show even less restraint.

“The fear is that he will concentrate the powers of the state. There will be no real judicial or legislative independence, and there will be no way to limit its power, ”said Mari Carmen Aponte, Ambassador to El Salvador in the Obama administration.

Mr Bukele’s relationship with the Biden administration has not started off smoothly. The Associated Press reported in February that the Salvadoran president had flown to Washington and asked to meet with members of the administration, but was turned away.

The embarrassing episode highlighted the test Mr Biden’s victory posed for leaders like Mr Bukele.

Under the Trump administration, managing relations with the United States was straightforward: As long as Mr. Bukele and his Central American counterparts applied Mr. Trump’s immigration program, they could expect little. interference from their neighbor to the north when they made provocative moves at home.

The new occupants of the White House have sent a much different message. Days after the inauguration, Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s senior advisor on Latin America, offered a direct assessment in an interview with El Faro, a Salvadoran news site.

“We are going to have our differences with the Bukele government,” Gonzalez said. “And we will voice our concerns in a respectful and well-meaning manner.”

The apprehension over Mr Bukele reverberated in Washington as it became clear how well his party could perform in Sunday’s election.

“Here is a guy who has not kept basic democratic standards, and you are giving him unchecked power,” former Obama adviser Dan Restrepo said in an interview. “Uncontrolled power rarely ends well in the region, and instability can only increase the migratory pressure, which is in no one’s interest.”

For Salvadorans accustomed to generations of political leaders who made lip service to democracy while enriching themselves from the public until Mr. Bukele’s transgressions were of little consequence.

The president has avoided an overflow of coronavirus cases in hospitals and distributed money to poor Salvadorans to ease the pain of the economic crisis. And while local media have reported that a sharp drop in killings under Mr. Bukele was the result of a government deal with criminal gangs, many Salvadorans are just happy to have a respite from the violence.

“People can write about the dangers of Bukele, but the reason it doesn’t resonate with people is because they say, ‘How does this feed me? How does this reduce the crime rate? Said Tim Muth, who has been an El Salvador election observer and blogger on the country’s politics.

“The Salvadoran public can finally decide that all is well,” he added, “because this guy is delivering a number of things to us.”

In Chalatenango, a small town north of the capital, Bukele’s supporters were stunned at the prospect of their president consolidating power and the decline of the political parties that had ruled the country for decades.

“People woke up and realized what we had been through all these years. No more. We want change, ”said Armando Gil, 59, a car salesman.

Mr Gil was a long-time supporter of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, but he was disgusted by the repeated corruption scandals involving “people who deceived us”.

He voted for Mr Bukele in 2019 and believes opponents of the president are frustrated that they cannot control him.

“He does not work for the small minority who have always ruled and dominated our country,” said Mr. Gil. “That’s what they don’t like.”

Nelson Renteria Meza contributed reporting from Chalatenango, El Salvador.

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