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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Two Months on: How a Democratic Election Might not Have Been so Democratic

Written by: Inés M. Pousadela

Inés M. Pousadela  is a CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, Co-Director and Writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 12,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.


A Democratic Voting Process

No one was surprised by President Nayib Bukele’s landslide victory in the 4th February 2024 elections of El Salvador. On election night the president-candidate proclaimed himself president-re-elect, claiming over 85% of the vote and at least 58 of 60 parliamentary seats. News outlets around the world announced Bukele’s election success and congratulations poured in from foreign dignitaries, even though there were no official results yet. Bukele and his supporters came out to celebrate as the vote count, then at about 30%, showed they had around 10 times more votes than the runner-up, a name many voters didn’t even recognize. Then, for the rest of the week the Supreme Electoral Court’s (TSE) website froze at 70% of the vote counted for president and barely above 5% for the Legislative Assembly. As details emerged of significant glitches in election reporting software, doubts were raised about the veracity of the published results and opposition groups called for an annulment and rerun. The TSE agreed to a manual recount of votes affected by system failures, accounting for 30% of presidential ballots and all legislative votes.

While a recount proceeded for legislative votes, presidential votes were eventually only verified through tally sheets, and on 10th February it was officially announced that Bukele had been re-elected with 82.7% of the vote. His main contender, of the leftist FMLN – Bukele’s party of origin – took a meagre 6.25%. Combined, the four opposition candidates barely got 17% of support. Turnout rates were undisclosed. Irregularities aside, there was no systematic fraud. Most voters enthusiastically backed Bukele, just as opinion polls had forecast, bolstered by the perceived resounding success of his war on gangs.

Possibilities of Re-Election

Bukele was not supposed to be on the ballot, as the Salvadoran constitution bans immediate presidential re-election. Yet, in September 2021, the Bukele-aligned Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court gave the green light to the president’s re-election. Bukele requested a ‘leave of absence’ for the last six months of his term, which according to the Constitutional Chamber’s interpretation made him eligible. There was one precedent for this in Salvadoran history – a 1930s general who initially reached power through a coup, used this tactic to get re-elected with 100% of the vote and then changed the constitution over and over so he could stay in power as long as he wished.

The unconstitutional waiving of the ban on re-election was one of the reasons the election observation mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) recognised, in its preliminary report, that the playing field was extremely uneven. The regional body emphasised that election day was peaceful and people exercised their right to vote uncoerced. It acknowledged that the wide gap between Bukele and his opponents left no doubt about who the winner was, with provisional numbers coinciding with its informal tally.

Anomalies in Campaigning

But the OAS report also denounced two major anomalies that severely distorted the democratic process. The first was the imbalance of power that both allowed Bukele to stand for re-election and gave him absolute control over state resources, doing away with any semblance of fair competition.

The Salvadoran Electoral Code bans early campaigning. On this occasion, campaigning was only permitted between 3rd October 2023 and 31st January 2024. The TSE systematically ignored complaints about the government’s early campaigning, use of state media and public resources for campaigning and refusal to give opposition parties their due share of designated campaign funds. It was estimated that up to 98% of money spent on political advertising between August and December 2023 was spent by the ruling party. Bukele had plenty of opportunities to publicise his major achievement: the reduction of gang violence to historically low levels. Oppositional voices were simply drowned out.

The second anomaly was holding an election under an extended state of emergency entailing the suspension of fundamental freedoms, including peaceful assembly, and due process guarantees. Initially declared following a spike in killings by gangs in March 2002, the state of emergency was subsequently extended several times until the exception became the rule.

Attacks on Freedom of Speech

Civic space conditions steadily worsened under the state of emergency. Attacks against journalists rose sharply since the start of the Bukele presidency, with a 184% increase between 2019 and 2021. Between July 2023 and February 2024, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador registered 64 acts of aggression against the press, mainly by public officials against online media reporters. Many journalists were driven into exile, and in April 2023 the investigative digital outlet El Faro moved its operations to Costa Rica. The potential for reprisals resulted in widespread self-censorship.

Looking to El Salvador’s Future

Following the latest election, there is no opposition to speak of anymore. Growing restrictions have also gone a long way in neutralising civil society and independent media. In November, Salvadoran civil society groups stated that they were facing “one of the most adverse scenarios” since the end of civil war in 1992, mainly as a result of police harassment, censorship and the closure of channels for dialogue with the government. All this was done with broad public support fuelled by Bukele’s success in controlling gang violence, and aided by a relentless media effort in his support. The international promotion of the country as paradise on earth has even succeeded in bolstering enthusiasm among the large Salvadoran diaspora in the USA, which made a substantial contribution to the vote count.

The government crackdown appears to have incapacitated gangs, reducing violence to historic lows and giving respite to communities previously overrun by criminal groups. Bukele receives credit for having achieved something no previous government did. But many doubt the long-term sustainability of his security policy. The government is yet to address the root causes of gang violence and does not appear to have plans to do so.

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