SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — When traveling the roads of El Salvador, it’s common to see light blue ads splashed across billboards and buses, a color that identifies the New Ideas party that on Sunday will compete for the first time in elections for mayors and members of congress.
Beyond its ubiquitous color, the New Ideas (NI) electoral campaign revolves around the figure of Nayib Bukele, the “most handsome and cool president in the world,” as he proclaimed himself shortly after taking power on June 1, 2019.
Many believe that Sunday’s elections will be key to the future of this beleaguered Central American nation, which still is struggling to recover from its calamitous civil war of 1980-92 and the aftershocks of endemic corruption, inequality and drug-fueled violence. If Bukele secures the backing of a majority of legislators, from his own party and his political allies, critics say he will be able to consolidate an executive power that has grown increasingly autocratic, intolerant and militant.
Opposition parties and human rights workers denounced Bukele for dispatching federal troops on Feb. 9, 2020, to the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly to create pressure to approve a loan to purchase new security equipment. The ensuing scenes of armed soldiers invading the chamber stunned Salvadorans who remembered the brutal era when government tanks and helicopters mowed down civilians and guerrilla fighters, leaving at least 75,000 dead.
But like other populists who’ve come to power in recent years, the 39-year-old president — a former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, who styles himself as a political pragmatist — commands a devoted following among those who distrust the ruling class and believe their country needs an independent strongman to shake up the status quo. According to one recent poll, 68.8% of respondents plan to support Bukele’s party in Sunday’s races.
“Bukele has a lot of social acceptance, (something) that had not been had before,” said Christopher Diaz, 20, who along with several other young people was handing out calendars, fliers and brochures with the president’s photo to passersby on a hot afternoon in front of the Plaza El Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, a lawyer and director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said the Biden administration must play a crucial role in curbing Bukele’s personality-driven, lawbreaking leadership. Bukele has disobeyed rulings of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, among them those that prohibited him from confining people in containment centers for violating COVID-related quarantine measures, Vivanco said.
“He has promoted a hostile environment for the independent press and human rights organizations, using social media to attack and stigmatize them,” Vivanco added. “If his party wins the majority in the Assembly, my fear is that he will advance with a constitutional reform that allows him to further concentrate power in his hands and be reelected to try to perpetuate himself in office.”
In the United States, which for decades has held political and economic sway over the country of 6.5 million, some members of Congress and foreign policy officials fear that giving Bukele more muscle could shatter El Salvador’s rule of law and separation of powers.
“I am very concerned about the conditions in El Salvador,” said U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., who closely monitors Central America.