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Senate Democrats troubled by ‘unconstitutional moves’ that affected El Salvador election

Senate Democrats on Monday congratulated Salvadoran voters for participating in their county’s election but expressed concern about “unconstitutional moves” that they said “strongly influenced” the election results.

“We congratulate the people of El Salvador and those in the Salvadoran diaspora who exercised their democratic right to vote over the weekend,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote in a statement.

“While people exercised their right to vote, we are troubled by the unconstitutional moves that strongly influenced the outcome of Sunday’s election and statements by the Vice President about ‘eliminating’ and ‘replacing’ democracy.”

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who had soaring approval ratings leading up to the election and no strong competition, apparently secured a second term by a wide margin, garnering 83 percent of the vote compared with his closest competitor’s 7 percent, The Associated Press (AP) reported. He declared a historic margin of victory before even preliminary numbers were released Sunday evening.

Vote counting issues delayed election results, according to the AP. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s preliminary results showed ballots from 31 percent of polling places had been counted by late Sunday, per the news wire, but that figure suddenly jumped to 70 percent Monday morning.

The electoral authority said there were “multiple actions that have hampered the development of the transmission activities of preliminary results,” the AP reported, and noted the lack of paper used to print vote tallies at polling places.

The authority called for a switch to a contingency process that included tallying votes by hand, the AP said.

Bukele’s apparent reelection comes after he exercised special powers awarded to him under a state of emergency during his first term that gave rise to concerns about the rollback of democratic norms, but it also resulted in a drastic decrease in crime in a country that had faced a notorious gang violence problem.

Bukele’s government arrested more than 76,000 people, more than 1 percent of the country’s population, under the state of emergency approved in March 2022, the AP reported. He made clear he expects the new Legislative Assembly to extend the state of emergency.

“We are not substituting democracy because El Salvador never had democracy,” Bukele said, according to the AP. “This is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy. And I’m not saying it, the people say it.”

Bukele’s vice presidential running mate Felix Ulloa, meanwhile, told The New York Times shortly before the election that they were “eliminating” and “replacing” democracy. “To these people who say democracy is being dismantled, my answer is yes — we are not dismantling it, we are eliminating it, we are replacing it with something new,” he said.

In their statement, Senate Democrats acknowledged the reduction in gang violence but said they were concerned about the lack of oversight.

“While we acknowledge the government’s progress on combatting the violent crime that has plagued El Salvador for too long, we remain concerned about weakened transparency and oversight mechanisms and the rapid undermining of the rule of law and human rights protections,” they wrote.

“We are committed to working with all our partners in the region to promote long-term stability and commitments to rights-based rule of law. We look forward to partnering with El Salvador to support its return to the constitutional order,” the senators added.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Bukele on his victory.

“I congratulate Nayib Bukele on his electoral victory as President of El Salvador. The United States commends the work of electoral observers and looks forward to working with President-elect Bukele and Vice President-elect Felix Ulloa following their inauguration in June,” Blinken wrote.

“The United States values our strong relationship with the people of El Salvador, forged over 160 years and built on shared values, regional ties, and family connections. Events in El Salvador have a direct impact on U.S. interests at home and abroad. Only by working together can we achieve our full potential and overcome the greatest obstacles in our hemisphere and globally. Looking ahead, the United States will continue to prioritize good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights in El Salvador under our Root Causes Strategy,” he continued.

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