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Salvador’s Leader, Combative but Popular, May Tighten Grip in Elections

MEXICO CITY — In his first two years in workplace, El Salvador’s president marched troopers into the nation’s legislature, defied Supreme Court rulings, printed pictures of barely clothed gang members crammed collectively on a jail ground, and dispatched the army to detain anybody breaking quarantine.

Salvadorans can’t get sufficient of him. President Nayib Bukele, who enjoys an approval ranking round 90 p.c in polls, is anticipated to broaden his mandate even additional in legislative elections on Sunday that might ship a decisive victory to his celebration.

The vote may additionally endow Mr. Bukele with sweeping new powers: management over a legislature that has been dominated by the opposition, together with the prospect to start altering the Constitution and, probably, to remake the federal government in his picture. If his celebration and its allies win two-thirds of the seats, they will substitute the legal professional normal and appoint new Supreme Court justices.

In an interview, Mr. Bukele’s vice chairman, Felix Ulloa, acknowledged that a number of the president’s actions have been questionable.

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

Mr. Bukele’s tendency towards confrontation will probably be tempered, Mr. Ulloa stated, as soon as he has a legislature that isn’t decided to dam his agenda. He invited the world to take measure of the president based mostly on how he governs after the election.

“We will be able to evaluate the true character of this government, whether it’s a democratic government serving the interests of the Salvadoran people,” Mr. Ulloa stated. “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 antidemocratic model, then that will also come to light.”

Part of what has drawn consideration to Mr. Bukele is his method, which may solely be described as very on-line. A 39-year-old self-styled political outsider, the president delights followers by trolling his enemies on Twitter and reveling in his triumphs on TikTok. He makes use of social media to trash El Salvador’s press, assault the legal professional normal and declare his refusal to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

And whereas Mr. Bukele has helped El Salvador management the unfold of the coronavirus higher than lots of its neighbors, he has drawn worldwide condemnation from human rights teams for his strongman shows and the repressive measures taken throughout the pandemic.

Last 12 months, he despatched troopers into the legislature to attempt to strain lawmakers to approve a mortgage to finance legislation enforcement. (Vice President Ulloa known as the deployment “an error.”)

Mr. Bukele additionally dispatched troopers and the police to detain folks breaking quarantine in so-called containment facilities — then ignored a number of Supreme Court orders to halt the apply. And he has drawn widespread criticism for posting pictures of prisoners huddled collectively in their underwear.

Critics fear that if he beneficial properties unfettered management over the nation after Sunday’s election, he’ll present even much less restraint.

“The fear is that he will concentrate the powers of the state. There won’t be real judicial or legislative independence, and there won’t be a way of limiting his power” stated Mari Carmen Aponte, an envoy to El Salvador in the Obama administration.

Mr. Bukele’s relationship with the Biden administration didn’t get off to a clean begin. The Associated Press reported in February that the Salvadoran president flew to Washington and requested to satisfy with members of the administration, but was rebuffed.

The awkward episode highlighted the take a look at that Mr. Biden’s victory has posed for leaders like Mr. Bukele.

Under the Trump administration, managing relations with the United States was simple: As lengthy as Mr. Bukele and his counterparts in Central America enforced Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda, they may count on little interference from their northern neighbor once they made provocative strikes at dwelling.

The White House’s new occupants have despatched a far completely different message. Days after the inauguration, Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s high adviser on Latin America, provided a blunt evaluation in an interview with El Faro, a Salvadoran news website.

“We are going to have our differences with Bukele’s government,” Mr. Gonzalez stated. “And we’re going to voice worries in a respectful and well-meaning manner.”

Apprehension over Mr. Bukele has reverberated in Washington because it has turn into clear simply how nicely his celebration may carry out in Sunday’s elections.

“Here’s a guy who hasn’t observed basic democratic norms, and you hand him unchecked power,” the previous Obama adviser Dan Restrepo stated in an interview. “Unchecked power seldom ends well in the region, and instability can only increase migratory pressure, which is in no one’s interest.”

For Salvadorans accustomed to generations of political leaders who paid lip service to democracy whereas enriching themselves from the general public until, Mr. Bukele’s transgressions don’t appear to matter a lot.

The president has prevented an overflow of coronavirus circumstances in hospitals and has handed out money to poor Salvadorans to blunt the ache of the financial disaster. And whereas native news media reported {that a} sharp plunge in murders below Mr. Bukele resulted from a authorities cope with prison gangs, many Salvadorans are simply joyful to have a respite from violence.

“People may write about the dangers of Bukele, but the reason it doesn’t resonate with people is that they say, ‘That feeds me how? That lowers the crime rate how?’” stated Tim Muth, who has served as an election observer in El Salvador and writes a weblog on the nation’s politics.

“The Salvadoran public ultimately may be deciding that it’s OK,” he added, “because this guy is delivering a certain set of things to us.”

In Chalatenango, a small city north of the capital, Bukele’s supporters have been giddy on the prospect of their president consolidating energy and by the decline of the political events that had dominated the nation for many years.

“The people woke up and realized what we had been living through all these years. No more. We want change,” stated Armando Gil, 59, a automotive salesman.

Mr. Gil had been a longtime supporter of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, but grew disgusted at repeated corruption scandals involving “people who cheated us.”

He voted for Mr. Bukele in 2019 and believes the president’s opponents are pissed off that they will’t management him.

“He isn’t working for the small minority that has always run and dominated our country,” Mr. Gil stated. “That’s what they don’t like.”

Nelson Renteria Meza contributed reporting from Chalatenango, El Salvador.

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