Salvadoran left denounces elections as fraudulent, international observers raise alarm bells
San Salvador, El Salvador – On Sunday, February 4, right-wing Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele illegally ran for reelection even though the country’s constitution doesn’t allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms. With extreme irregularities throughout the year leading up to the election and systemic chaos bringing ballot counting to a halt on election night, Bukele still declared himself the winner of the presidency, and his party the winner of 58 out 60 Legislative Assembly seats. Opposition parties stated that Bukele’s claim that his party had won 58 of 60 Legislative Assembly seats was wildly inaccurate.
Despite Bukele’s declaration of victory, two days after the election almost all of the ballots cast for the Legislative Assembly still remained uncounted and a significant number of presidential ballots also remained uncounted. On election night, poll workers across the country started reporting in live videos on social media that the computer system for reporting results kept trying to double or triple the number of votes for Nayib Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, as they tried to transmit the results. Then the system crashed entirely, grinding ballot counting to a halt.
After the vote counting was stopped late Sunday night, the ballots from the country’s capital San Salvador were then “lost”’ for over a day, leaving open the possibility that they had been tampered with before they were “found” the next day.
On February 5, the day after the election, the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Block (BRP), a block of left-wing and progressive organizations in El Salvador, released a statement saying that they condemn:
“… the unconstitutional reelection of Nayib Bukele, imposed with the complicity of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). As an expression of the organized Salvadoran popular movement, the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Block DOES NOT recognize the illegal election results or the de facto regime surging from this electoral farce. We denounce the fact that to guarantee this fraud in favor of the governing party, the regime also illegally modified the electoral system and violated many legal dispositions during the electoral campaign. We positively appreciate the courage of hundreds of thousands of people who voted for the opposition in a context of illegalities, political persecution and the continuing State of Exception, which suppresses constitutional guarantees and which the government utilizes as a mechanism of social containment. In this context of rupture with the constitutional order, of repression and regression in the political, social and economic order, we reiterate our call to build a broad front of left, democratic, and progressive forces to impede the consolidation of the dictatorial regime that seeks to perpetuate itself in power. We call on the people to get organized and deepen the struggle against the Bukele clan’s dictatorship, which sustains itself with illegalities and which has the backing of the oligarchy and imperialism.”
In a press conference after the election, a spokesperson for the group of accredited international election observers from the Center for Interchange and Solidarity, which has observed every Salvadoran election since the 1992 Peace Accords, said, “We suspect that there was an attempt to modify the results by the system that completely failed in the final counting. There wasn’t a ‘Plan B’ and they haven’t given any explanation for why the internet went out, for why the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s electoral reporting system failed, why the printers stopped working. Some reported that the boxes containing the technology arrived without being properly sealed. This has never happened before. So we don’t know if something happened with bad intentions, but the Attorney General must investigate. There were many irregularities and these were the most chaotic elections since 1994.”
Despite these flagrant and widely-reported problems observed by international election monitors, on the day after the election U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hastily recognized Bukele as the winner, saying, that the U.S. “looks forward to working with President-elect Bukele and Vice President-elect Felix Ulloa following their inauguration in June.”
Prominent right-wing political figures in the U.S. also quickly recognized Bukele as the election winner, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Bukele is popular with Republicans in the U.S., including Donald Trump. On the other hand, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar and several of the more progressive members of Congress sent a public letter to the Biden administration the week before the Salvadoran election raising alarms over President Bukele's state of emergency, unlawful arrests and detention, harassment of political opponents, restrictions on press freedoms, and other actions.
Bukele’s self-declared victory in this election, for which he was ineligible to run, which took place under a militarized State of Exception, brings to an end El Salvador’s period of political opening that began in 1992 with the end of the Salvadoran Civil War. The Peace Accords signed that year put in place reforms forced by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during its period as a left-wing guerrilla movement, which allowed the left to openly participate in elections for the first time in the country’s history. The left in El Salvador was outlawed and excluded from elections through the 1980s; the elections that the left tried to participate in under the umbrella of broad coalitions in the 1970s were stolen from them through fraud and brutal repression, leading to the rise of the armed left-wing revolutionary movement of the 1980s.
The Salvadoran constitution’s prohibition against a president serving two consecutive terms was put in place because of repeated experiences of military dictatorship in the 20th century, to prevent the same thing from recurring. But after winning the presidency in 2019, President Bukele illegally sacked and replaced the country’s Supreme Court justices with his own supporters, who then “reinterpreted” the constitution to allow him to run again.
Throughout this year’s electoral campaign Bukele changed the rules and tilted the playing field to his party’s advantage while threatening and repressing opposition parties to assure he and his Nuevas Ideas party would win. Bukele’s maneuvers included reducing the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly and redrawing the map of the country, and combining cities where opposition parties like the left-wing FMLN have support with areas where he had more support in order to reduce opposition parties’ representation.
Bukele and his supporters’ had an explicit goal in this year’s election of forcing the left wing FMLN’s disappearance as a recognized political party, by keeping their vote totals under the limit that would allow them to continue as a legal electoral party. While the results are still unclear, the partial and provisional results that were reported before the system crashed seem to indicate that Bukele failed in his attempt to erase the FMLN out of existence. In the numbers released so far, the FMLN has the second highest vote totals, higher than all other opposition parties.
This election took place under restricted democratic rights, with the militarized State of Exception that has dragged on for two years now with no end in sight. The mass arrests of more than 76,000 people under the State of Exception has rocketed El Salvador to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
While the mass arrests are said to be aimed at combating street gangs, the government itself has admitted that at least 10% of the people they’ve arrested and held without charges are innocent, with the actual number likely higher.
While Bukele’s targeting of violent street gangs has been popular, he has also used the “war on gangs” and the State of Exception as cover to attack his political enemies, principally the left-wing FMLN party. Both of the former presidents from the FMLN, Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Mauricio Funes, have been forced to flee the country to avoid political persecution, receiving political asylum from neighboring Nicaragua’s progressive government. Several other FMLN leaders have been jailed and dragged through trumped-up trials accusing them of corruption, and Bukele frequently accuses the FMLN of being terrorists.
Bukele’s government has also attacked progressive activists like the environmental movement leaders in the town of Santa Marta who helped win a ban on exploitative foreign mining operations in El Salvador, jailing five key leaders for over a year on bogus charges before being forced to release them after widespread international protests.
Bukele’s government also tried to jail Ruben Zamora on bogus charges. Zamora is an important figure in modern Salvadoran history, as a founder of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) in 1980 who survived capture and torture, and whose brother was assassinated by the U.S.-backed military during the Salvadoran Civil War. Zamora was also the FMLN’s presidential candidate in the first election after the civil war in 1994, an ambassador to the U.S. and the UN under FMLN presidents. In recent years he has been an outspoken critic of President Bukele, reminding Salvadorans that their constitution allows insurrection against an illegitimate government. International outcry forced the government to rescind their order of capture against Zamora.
While Bukele currently has a base of support in El Salvador – and even more so among Salvadorans living abroad, due to his highly-orchestrated self-promoting propaganda campaign and the perception that he has ended violence in the country – he seemingly wasn’t content to gamble that his personal popularity would transfer to his party’s candidates for the Legislative Assembly enough to keep their supermajority – a supermajority that allows him to push through whatever policies he wants without debate.
Bukele’s use of extralegal means to attack the left and to tighten his grip on power has politically catapulted El Salvador back 50 years, to the time when right-wing leaders aligned with the military and with U.S. imperialism ruled through open repression and tried to silence any left-wing or popular movement.