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Bukele landslide shifts El Salvador to one-party state, amplifies democracy fears

Presidential elections in San Salvador

By Sarah Kinosian and Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The landslide re-election of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele was cheered by supporters of his gang crackdown, but has worried opponents who fear the country is sliding into a de facto one-party state.

The tallying of the vote was still ongoing on Monday but Bukele had appeared to deliver a crushing victory, with the backing of around 83% of voters. The president said his New Ideas party was on course to bag 58 posts in the 60-seat congress, although only 5% of the vote had been counted.

The result grants Bukele unprecedented control of the assembly, where last term he used his party's supermajority to reshape institutions and pack the courts. One such tribunal let him seek re-election despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms.

In his victory speech on Sunday night, Bukele said the opposition had been "pulverized" on the back of his popular anti-gang crackdown and emphasized that his victory was the result of a free vote.

"Democracy means the power of the people," he said, lashing out at foreign governments, journalists and rights groups who have warned of an authoritarian drift and railing against the U.S. for its role in the country's brutal 1979-1992 civil war.

El Salvador had "made history" for electing a single party "in a fully democratic system," he said.

But rights groups said they are worried about where the country is headed and forecast further curbs on civil rights.

"The fact that there is this concentration of power implies that there are no more guarantees in El Salvador," said Gabriela Santos, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA).

Bukele's popularity underlines how some Central American countries have struggled to launch sustainable democratic models in the aftermath of civil conflicts between left-wing guerrillas and U.S.-backed right-wing authoritarian regimes.

Most voters seem unbothered by Bukele's political dominance, or the suspension of civil liberties that has led to the arrest of 76,000 Salvadorans, often without due process, since he launched his crackdown in March 2022. They are just grateful he crushed the gang violence plaguing El Salvador for decades and that they can go outside after dark again.

The drop in crime and emigration that accompanied the crackdown presents a dilemma for U.S. policymakers hoping to encourage democracy but also eager to stem border crossings.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken congratulated Bukele on Monday, while saying the U.S. would prioritize fair trial guarantees and human rights as part of its efforts to curb the causes of migration.

Although some analysts have warned the mass incarceration of 1% of the population is not sustainable, Bukele has vowed to continue to push his hard line on gangs. He has hinted he would also now turn to the economy, the slowest growing in Central America and likely to be an increasing concern for voters in his second term.

RULE FOR LIFE?

With his unprecedented power and ability to overhaul El Salvador's constitution, opponents fear Bukele will scrap term limits and seek to rule for life, echoing moves by President Daniel Ortega in next-door Nicaragua.

When asked if he would amend the constitution to allow for indefinite re-election, Bukele told reporters on Sunday he "didn't think a constitutional reform would be necessary," but did not directly answer questions on whether he would contest a third term.

El Salvador's legacy parties, meanwhile, have a long way to go to earning back public support. Their candidates look set to earn single-digit percentages of Sunday's vote.

"What could happen to the opposition is that they disappear, because we really blindly trusted them and they did nothing while the country fell into violence," said Gladis Munoz, a 55-year-old secretary in the capital. "We feel deceived."

Opposition parties were presented by Bukele's campaign as allies of the gangs, which they deny.

But Bukele has successfully controlled the narrative through a sophisticated media machine powered by an army of paid trolls who attack journalists and political opponents.

In recent years, the legislative assembly has broadly rubber-stamped Bukele's proposals and most laws passed by the body came from the presidency. Opposition proposals were rarely taken up.

As in Venezuela, the opposition is divided and lacks a clear short-term plan for how to take on Bukele.

"Democratic spaces are closing in El Salvador, civil society is closing down and there is an environment of fear to speak out," said Claudia Ortiz, a lawmaker who has clashed with Bukele and ran for the upstart Vamos party. "Everything is in service to one political project."

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian and Nelson Renteria; Writing by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Christian Plumb and Rosalba O'Brien)