The ‘cult’ of Bukele: El Salvador’s millennial strongman heads for second term

Bitcoin-loving incumbent president is polling at 82 per cent amid crackdown on alleged gangsters

Bitcoin is legal tender; roughly one in 45 adults is in jail; and the former nightclub manager turned president stormed congress with the military less than a year after taking office.

The first term of El Salvador’s millennial president Nayib Bukele has been unusual by both Latin American and global standards. But Salvadorans are eager for more. On Sunday they look set to re-elect him with more than 80 per cent of the vote.

“He is someone special, sent by God,” said Marta Márquez, a 50-year-old owner of a food stand in Nuevo Cuscatlán near San Salvador, who still has a bullet in her leg from when members of the criminal gang MS-13 tried to kill her a decade ago.

Like many others, Márquez has been won over by the improvement in day-to-day security brought about by Bukele’s draconian crackdown on gangs, in which mass arrests have helped to dismantle groups that once made the country one of the world’s deadliest to live in.


Her grandchildren can now roam freely without fear, Márquez said. “He was the best thing that could have ever happened to Salvadoran families,” she added. “We can’t go back to the past.”

Bukele’s state of emergency crackdown introduced in 2022 – which critics say may have swept up thousands of men without clear gang links – has won him a devoted following domestically and across the region, where political candidates from Guatemala to Colombia are now pitching a similarly uncompromising approach.

On Sunday, Bukele (42), is expected to overwhelmingly win his second five-year period in office, after judges picked by his party overturned the country’s ban on consecutive terms. That would make him the first Salvadoran leader to be re-elected in more than 80 years.

Sporting a backwards baseball cap, aviator sunglasses and trimmed beard, Bukele has cultivated an anti-establishment image that he proudly claims is neither left- nor right-wing.

The former marketing manager has focused on changing El Salvador’s image as poor and violent with headline-grabbing moves such as hosting the Miss Universe pageant and making bitcoin legal tender. He has built a highly effective propaganda machine to reinforce support for his changes via state media and slick social media videos.

“He’s built a cult phenomenon around his personality,” said Óscar Picardo, director of the sciences institute at the Francisco Gavidia University and Bukele’s former middle schoolteacher. “He’s created an almost monarchic atmosphere ... he is who decides what’s good and what’s bad.”

On the streets of San Salvador, billboards and posters of candidates are limited, as Bukele – whose TikTok followers exceed the total population of El Salvador – moved the election campaign online.

Although he has held few public campaign events, polls point to the least competitive election in the region’s democratic history: Bukele is expected to regain the presidency with 82 per cent of the vote, while his New Ideas party could capture almost all 60 seats in congress.

A cornerstone of El Salvador’s new image was becoming the first country to make bitcoin legal tender. The cryptocurrency gambit introduced in 2021 garnered headlines and helped spark niche crypto tourism, but spooked the International Monetary Fund and had little take-up among citizens.

Bukele’s 72-year-old vice-president Félix Ulloa contrasted Bukele’s approach with older politicians’ experience of the country’s bloody civil war, which began in 1980. Bukele was still at school when the war ended and later worked on campaigns for the FMLN, a left-wing rebel group turned political party.

“At his age, or maybe younger than him, [our generation was] laying bombs, taking shots, blowing up bridges, we were at war,” Ulloa told the Financial Times. “But the world today of this young millennial ... it’s another world. One has to try to stay up to date.”

Voters are primarily hoping for more of what Bukele has already achieved on crime. The homicide rate has plummeted from 52 per 100,000 people in 2018 – one of the world’s highest levels – to 2.4 per 100,000 last year.

This follows his crackdown in which due process was suspended, allowing security forces to jail about 76,000 alleged gang members. The results have been stark: more than one in 45 adults is now in prison, according to Financial Times estimates based on population data. Most are awaiting trial.

Rights groups say people are rounded up based on mere suspicion and are jailed without proper legal representation, part of what they say has been some of the fastest democratic backsliding in the region.

Some academics fear Bukele – who fired all judges aged over 60 and in 2020 stormed congress with the military to pressure legislators to back a loan for security funding – may try to change the constitution to allow indefinite re-election. He has denied this. “Many people in El Salvador look in the mirror and see Nicaragua, and there are signs that we could go that way,” said Omar Serrano, director of social outreach at the Universidad Centroamericana, referring to strongman president Daniel Ortega’s grip on power in the nearby country.

But Bukele frequently highlights the transformation his policies have wrought for Salvadorans not caught up in the crackdown.

“They said there was democracy ... but what people lived was death, poverty,” the president said in January on social media platform X. “Our country is changed ... in large part it’s thanks to not paying attention to ... these kinds of [human rights] organisations and the so-called international community.”

Bukele’s main opponents in the election, the FMLN’s Manuel Flores and the right-wing Arena party’s Joel Sánchez, have struggled to gain traction after being overshadowed by the charismatic leader.

Some in El Salvador do have reservations. “Most of us Salvadorans have benefited in terms of security,” said William Menjívar, a 41-year-old painter-decorator in the north of the country. “[But] you can’t give absolute power to just one person.”

A descendant of Palestinian Christian immigrants who built a textiles company, Bukele attended elite private schools but did not graduate from university and instead went into his family’s conglomerate.

Under the auspices of his father, a businessman and Muslim convert who founded the country’s first mosque, Bukele ran a nightclub and worked on political advertising campaigns.

If re-elected, Bukele will face a challenge to kick-start a lacklustre economy that has teetered on the edge of default as he increased spending and spooked investors with his unpredictable governing style.

El Salvador’s economy has seen paltry growth and scant foreign investment, while borrowing on international debt markets has become prohibitively expensive during his first term.

This has added urgency to ongoing talks with the IMF for a loan facility, but two people familiar with the situation said the fund was likely to push for the removal of bitcoin as legal tender. It is unclear whether Bukele, whose government has invested about $120 million in the cryptocurrency, would accept this.

“It’s very dear to his heart ... [and] very important for his personal image and brand abroad,” said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at Eurasia Group. “How Bukele decides to move on that after he [wins] this massive mandate is going to be very telling.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here