‘Unwaveringly loyal’: Why El Salvador’s Bukele is poised for reelection

He suspended civil liberties. Led a mass incarceration effort. And provoked international criticism for human rights violations.

But five years after he was first elected, President Nayib Bukele appears on track to secure a second term in office when El Salvador holds its general elections on Sunday.

An estimated 69.9 percent of voters approve of his reelection bid, despite questions about its constitutionality: Before Bukele, presidents in El Salvador had historically been limited to one term.

Bukele himself has embraced the condemnation he faces, labelling himself “the world’s coolest dictator”.

“On the surface, his base appears unwaveringly loyal to him even if he implements policies that negatively impact a large number of people,” said Rafael Paz Narvaez, a professor from the University of El Salvador.

Still, despite Bukele’s solid base of support, some observers question how long voters will back his strongman approach, particularly as more and more people feel its sting.

Under Bukele, El Salvador has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with an estimated 2 percent of its adult population behind bars.

The country once had one of the highest homicide rates too: In 2015, there were 105 murders for every 100,000 residents, a towering sum.

But Bukele has credited his “mano dura” or “iron fist” tactics for causing that number to tumble to just 7.8 homicides out of every 100,000 people — the lowest in Central America.

Security a primary concern

That argument has proven compelling for many Salvadorans, who have struggled with decades of widespread gang violence.Douglas Guzmán, 35, counts himself among Bukele’s ardent supporters. Wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan “Bukele 2024-2029”, he recently joined dozens of people to watch the daily performance of street dancers in the Libertad Plaza, part of downtown San Salvador.

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