El Salvador’s Bukele wins supermajority in Congress after painstaking vote count

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador President Nayib Bukele and his New Ideas party have won the supermajority the leader needs in Congress to govern as he pleases, electoral officials announced Monday.

The announcement comes after a painstaking vote counting process, which has raised the hackles of electoral watchdogs and the country’s weak opposition, who cite irregularities.

Bukele handily won re-election Feb. 4 with 84.7% of the vote. What had remained up in the air was if Bukele’s New Ideas party would be equally as successful in legislative elections. On Monday, officials announced that New Ideas won 54 seats of the 60 congressional seats. Allied parties won an additional three seats.

Despite not having the final results, the leader had already declared victory in the presidency and in the congress the night of the election, saying “El Salvador has broken all the records of all democracies in the entire history of the world.”

“Never has a project won with the number of votes we have won today,” Bukele said. “It is literally the highest percentage in all of history.”

Now — with the vote actually certified — the supermajority effectively gives the self-described “world’s coolest dictator” even firmer control of all three branches of government.

The 42-year-old leader is massively popular in El Salvador due to his war on the country’s gangs, which resulted in a sharp drop in violence. But Bukele has also been accused of undemocratic moves, including carrying out an electoral reform that critics say stacked the vote in favor of his New Ideas party, particularly in legislative and local elections.

Last year, the congress passed electoral reforms that reduced the number of seats in the unicameral chamber to 60 from 84, a move expected to favor New Ideas.

Bukele needs congress to continue emergency measures approved month-to-month for his gang crackdown. Previously, the leader clashed with opposition parties in congress blocking his initiatives, even showing up to congress with armed military officers.

“Now, he doesn’t need any other party,” said Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer with the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action who explained that before the election Bukele would at least have to pull on support from allied parties.

Congressional control will also potentially allow him to alter the constitution – which bans leaders from holding consecutive terms – to stay in power.

While constitutional lawyers argue it’s illegal to make such changes, Bukele already sparked controversy by running for reelection. His party’s majority in congress and a friendly court they stacked allowed him to dodge the constitutional ban.

In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this month, Bukele’s vice president left the possibility of seeking a third term open if the country’s constitution is changed.

New Ideas’ grip on congress could also allow the leader to address the country’s slowing economy and rising poverty rates. It will also permit the party to boot out critical voices from courts, and a number of other government offices.

But electoral observers and critics continue to raise alarm about the process it took to get there.

The vote count has become a subject of scrutiny after a number of irregularities and glitches resulted in the collapse of the system transmitting results. Because of the chaos, El Salvador’s electoral body called for a manual count of the legislative election votes and part of the presidential votes.

Members of the opposition have highlighted alleged irregularities, such as ballots being marked with pen instead of the designated crayon or not being folded. Some of those parties, highly unpopular among Salvadorans, have called for another round of voting.

Electoral observers from the Organization of American States continued to raise alarms about lags and “lack of control” by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on vote counting which left decisions “in the hands of the representatives of the political parties.”

The New Ideas party “assumed a dominant and intimidating attitude against people representing other parties and against observers,” the OAS said, citing one instance in which party members blocked observers from witnessing vote counts. It also denounced “attacks” against hundreds of journalists.

It stopped short of calling for a new round of voting, as some opposition parties have.

Still, Escobar, the Citizen Action lawyer, said he still hasn’t seen evidence of “systematic” or widespread irregularities that could significantly impact Bukele’s firm grip on power.

“Have there been irregularities? Yes, surely,” Escobar said. “My question is how much could (the irregularities) have actually impacted the results? … Sure, that could have had an impact, but not so much that it could totally change the trend” of voters favoring Bukele and his party.


Janetsky contributed from Mexico City.


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