Nayib Bukele with an easy path to a second presidential term in El Salvador

Edited image of Nayib Bukele. Screencapture from Youtube/Channel 4 News

The time has arrived for the 2024 Salvadoran presidential campaign to begin. All Salvadoran political parties have ended their internal elections and are ready to officially start their campaign to defeat the most popular president in Latin America, Nayib Bukele.

The presidential candidates seeking to step out of Bukele's shadow are Manuel “Chino” Flores from the left-wing FMLN, Joel Sanchez of the right-wing ARENA, Luis Parada of the liberal progressive party Nuestro Tiempo, and Jose Javier Renderos of the center-right party Fuerza SolidariaThe candidates facing Bukele will have to overcome his popularity among Salvadorans. 

Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party held its internal elections and officially nominated Nayib Bukele as its presidential candidate. It brushed aside objections from legal experts and the opposition who say El Salvador's constitution prohibits his candidacy. The Salvadoran Constitutional Chamber ruled that Bukele can register as a presidential candidate. He will be on the 2024 presidential election ballot.

Bukele's popular ‘iron fist’ methods

President Bukele is the most popular leader in Latin America, maintaining an approval rate above 75 percent during his entire presidential term. His popularity among Salvadorans is mainly due to his harsh policies against criminal street gangs, which he claims resulted in El Salvador's exceptional reduction in homicides and gang presence. His most noticeable strategy has been the controversial state of exception, which has been ongoing since March 2022.

Under the Bukele administration, which is seen as an authoritarian regime by many international observers and hailed as an example by others, El Salvador has had the lowest homicide rate since the end of the country's civil war in 1992. Also, gangs are not controlling communities as they did before, making many Salvadorans feel safer

However, many people and NGOs believe Bukele's harsh tactics have violated the human rights of many Salvadorans. As of this date, over 71,000 people have been arrested under the state of exception, many with little to no investigation. Hundreds were arrested due to “nervous” or “suspicious” appearances. 

Nonetheless, El Salvador's improved sense of safety has resulted in politicians and citizens in many Latin American countries praising Bukele's harsh security tactics. The Los Angeles Times reports that “in Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Guatemala, citizens have taken to the streets, calling on their own governments to embrace his [Bukele's] extreme strategies for combating violence.”

Bukele's opposition contends that the state of exception violates human rights and needs to end immediately. However, this policy is popular with Salvadoran voters. All surveys conducted by independent institutions, who frequently criticize Bukele in opinion pieces (such as IUDOPFundaungo, and LPG Datos), show high approval ratings for the state of exception.

Bukele's mediatic influence

Bukele is a savvy communicator with tremendous influence over potential voters. Bukele also has vast access to traditional media, as well as the widely circulated government-run Diario El Salvador, and a large following on different social media platforms, which gives him an advantage over opposing candidates.

Reports claim that there are trolls and Youtube influencers working to promote Bukele's narratives throughout social media and attack journalists. According to Global Voices’ research in the Unfreedom Monitor, Bukele has also harassed independent journalists on Twitter. El Salvador's government was also accused of using Pegasus spyware on journalists.

Well-known media organizations such as El FaroEl Diario de Hoy, and La Prensa Grafica have constantly highlighted Bukele's government's wrongdoings and published opinions against his governance. Most of the critical reports focused on Bukele's alleged negotiation with gangscorruption, unconstitutional moves, and human rights violations. Despite the ongoing mediatic criticism, Bukele continues to have high approval ratings; he may be even more influential now than when he began his presidential term. 

Media outlets critical of Bukele have low credibility with Salvadorans. A June 2023 survey by Francisco Gavidia University asked how much trust respondents have in these media. Nearly 50 percent replied that do not trust El Faro, despite having won many international awards for their investigations. Only 6 percent trusted that media. Major print newspapers “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” did not do well in the survey either. Only 11.6 percent said they had a lot of trust in El Diario de Hoy and 17.8 percent in La Prensa Grafica. This was surpassed by 26.5% who trusted Diario El Salvador.

El Faro decided to move its operational headquarters to Costa Rica earlier this year. The staff wrote: “The dismantling of our democracy, the lack of controls on the exercise of power held by a small group, the attacks on freedom of the press, and the closure of all mechanisms of transparency and accountability in El Salvador seriously threaten the citizen's right to be informed, in addition to the substantial public resources currently destined to disseminate propaganda and false news.”

Screenshot of the results of the University Francisco Gavidia University's survey of Bukele's four-year mandate, asking respondents whether they trust media a lot, a little, or not at all.

Similar to media outlets, the United Nations and human rights NGOs have also been critical of Bukele. Human Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalCristosal, and the United Nations have reported on Bukele's actions; however, these reports do not seem to have affected how Salvadorans perceive Bukele. Biden's administration, which was critical of Bukele, has reversed its rhetoric towards the Salvadoran president. 

For example, Jean Manes, appointed U.S. Charge d'Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador until November 2022, was critical of Bukele and put a temporary hold on the relations between the two countries. However, current U.S. Ambassador William Duncan praises the level of security in the country, despite accusations of human rights violations. He recently said:

I travel widely in El Salvador. I talk to people in the government, and I talk to farmers in the field… I haven't met anybody yet who is not happy about the current state of public security in the country. Even those people who have reservations about the way is being done recognize that this has been a game changer for El Salvador.

Many believe that Bukele's popular security policies and mediatic power will give him an easy path to a second presidential term, with opposing candidates far behind. As of June, more than 75 percent of voters supported his reelection.

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