Nayib Bukele

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. (AP)

Explainer: El Salvador's 2024 Presidential and Legislative Elections

By Chase Harrison

Popular President Nayib Bukele is not only likely to win reelection on February 4 but also an even stronger mandate.

On February 4, El Salvador holds elections that one Salvadoran media outlet is calling “an administrative procedure.” That’s because victory seems all but certain for current President Nayib Bukele, the most popular leader in the Americas. A January study by Central American University (UCA) gives Bukele 82 percent of voter intention—78 points higher than his closest rival

Bukele will not only be trying to score a big presidential mandate and another five-year term; he’s also hoping to see his party, New Ideas, expand control in El Salvador’s legislature. This will be first year since 2009 in which El Salvador’s presidential and legislative elections occur simultaneously. Just one month later, on March 3, El Salvador will hold local elections, presenting another opportunity for Bukele to win seats.

Voting is not compulsory in El Salvador. In the last presidential election in 2019, turnout was 51 percent. Voting from abroad is allowed and a new reform means Salvadorans can do so electronically

AS/COA Online reviews polling, Bukele’s rise, and the state of the opposition.

Bukele 101

But wait? How is Bukele even running? 

While it’s true that the Salvadoran Constitution prohibits presidential reelection, rulings made in the last few years have permitted Bukele to run. How that came to pass sheds light on the manner in which the president’s control grew over all three branches of El Salvador’s government.

Bukele was first elected in 2019 when an opposition-controlled Congress was still seated. In the 2021 legislative races, his party and its allies won a supermajority in the legislature. On the first day of the new session, Bukele-affiliated legislators dismissed all five members of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and their alternates. They, along with scores of judges across the country, were replaced with pro-Bukele justices.

In September 2021, the Constitutional Chamber of Supreme ruled reelection permissible by the Constitution, opening the door for Bukele to run again. That decision was approved by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. On December 1, as legally decreed, Bukele stepped down from the presidency six months before the next presidential inauguration, in order to campaign. He appointed his personal secretary, Claudia Rodríguez de Guevara, to serve as interim president.

Bukele is centering his reelection campaign around his highly popular security policies, which the president says has transformed El Salvador from the “murder capital of the world” to the “safest country in Latin America.”

Back in 2022, after a spate of homicides one weekend in March, Bukele pressed Congress to approve a state of exception. The policy, renewed by Congress 22 times on a monthly basis in the past two years, suspends civil rights in El Salvador to facilitates mass arrests of suspected gang members. So far, authorities have arrested over 70,000 people

El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world; over 1 percent of its population is behind bars without the right to due process, presumption of innocence, or access to counsel. In an effort to manage the volume, Bukele oversaw the construction of a mega-prison, with a capacity of 40,000. 

Meanwhile, homicides in 2023 fell to just 2.4 per 100,000 people, the second-lowest rate in the Americas, after Canada. This would represent a 70-percent drop just from the year before. However, organizations like UCA’s Observatory of Human Rights, have questioned the numbers, given that neither the deaths of suspected gang members nor those who perish in state custody are included.

Bukele advocates for his security policy through social media, another mainstay of his presidency. As Roberta Braga of Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas explained on the Latin America in Focus podcast, “Bukele has really doubled down on a strategic communications tactic…He harnesses and invests in high-quality, evergreen, long-form and short-form video. And he uses that in places where people are consuming information. So for example, on TikTok, on YouTube, and on Instagram.”

Bukele, who has more than 7 million followers on TikTok alone, uses his social networks to advocate for his positions, as well as to disparage journalists and critics. In these efforts, he’s helped by influencers, YouTube channels, and troll farms.

The opposition

Four opposition candidates will face off with Bukele for the presidency. Despite 2023 efforts to run a single candidate backed by opposition parties and civil society groups, the potential alliance fell apart in negotiations. 

Both of El Salvador’s traditional parties are running candidates. The ring-wing ARENA is running businessman Joel Sánchez, who has lived most of his life in the United States. The left-wing FMLN, to which Bukele once belonged, is running Manuel Flores, a former mayor and congressman. Both parties have struggled to build support during the Bukele presidency, as they have hemorrhaged members and faced accusations of corruption.

The legislature and local races

On February 4, Salvadorans will vote for deputies to a legislature that’s been reduced in size from 84 to 60 deputies, thanks to a June 2023 electoral reform. Seats will still be divided proportionally between the 14 departments.

Currently, Bukele’s party holds 56 of the 84 seats, and its allied parties hold another eight seats. The opposition holds 20. Seven of those opposition seats come from San Salvador. Under another electoral reform, votes from El Salvador’s diaspora overseas will be counted in this department. The diaspora tends to be supportive of Bukele, “So the attempt is to swamp this region with votes from his supporters,” said Viriginia Commonwealth University Professor Michael Paarlberg on the Latin America in Focus podcast

On March 3, Salvadorans will return to the polls to vote in municipal elections and for Central American Parliament. Here, too, there is a reduction in seats due to a reform passed by the national legislature. The 262 existing mayorships will be trimmed down to just 42. New Ideas holds 150 of the 262 mayorships.

A presidential runoff will take place concurrently with municipal elections if no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote.