This month, incumbent Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele seemed poised to easily win reelection and sweep the legislature with his New Ideas party. But when his legislative supermajority appeared in doubt, Bukele and his supporters resorted to outright fraud.

Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele greets supporters next to his wife Gabriela Rodriguez after the presidential and legislative elections in El Salvador on February 4, 2024. (Marvin Recinos / AFP via Getty Images)

February 4 was supposed to be Nayib Bukele’s coronation day. Having successfully rigged the electoral system in his favor, suppressed the political opposition, and won over much of the population through an apparent victory over El Salvador’s notorious criminal gangs, the millennial millionaire and publicist president was poised to easily secure a second term — constitutional prohibitions on reelection be damned — and sweep the legislature with his New Ideas (NI) party.

By most accounts, that’s exactly what happened. A little under 53 percent of Salvadorans went to the polls that Sunday, and the vast majority of them voted for Bukele. Most of those voters — though not, it appears, as many as the president had hoped — also cast ballots for NI legislators.

But something went wrong. As poll workers began to input their tallies, the platform for uploading preliminary results on election night crashed. With only 70 percent of presidential votes and 5 percent of legislative results registered, the national elections board (the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, or TSE) declared the preliminary count a failure.

In the contentious recount that followed, credible allegations of fraud mounted. Bukele and his party appeared to be stealing an election that, by most measures, they had already won.

Rigging the System

Well before election day, social movements and analysts had warned that the president’s unconstitutional reelection bid, rising authoritarianism, and last-minute reforms had rendered free and fair elections impossible in Bukele’s El Salvador.

The February 4 elections were the first since the country’s civil war (1980–1992) to take place under a State of Exception. The suspension of constitutional guarantees like due process has been renewed by Bukele’s legislative majority every thirty days since March 2022, after a secret government pact with gang leaders to reduce homicides collapsed.

The ensuing mass arrests brought relief to the working-class communities that suffered the brunt of gang violence and extortion, even as it effectively criminalized them. With El Salvador now boasting the world’s highest incarceration rate, thousands of innocents languish in dire conditions, denied the right to communicate with their families or an attorney. Rights groups have confirmed at least 224 deaths in state custody, many from medical neglect, some showing signs of violence — and none of the victims had been convicted of any crime.

The indefinite State of Exception is convenient cover for the persecution and repression of political opposition, journalists, and activists. Bukele has deployed the military to occupy historic bastions of the Left and rural sites of community land defense against government-backed megaprojects and extractive industries. Dozens of former cabinet members, elected officials, and party leaders from the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) — the party that Bukele used to launch his political career — are behind bars, fighting trumped-up corruption charges, or in exile.

With El Salvador now boasting the world’s highest incarceration rate, thousands of innocents languish in dire conditions, denied the right to communicate with their families or an attorney.

The repression also serves to discipline Bukele’s allies. Three days after the elections, news broke of the death of Alejandro Muyshondt, Bukele’s former national security adviser, who was imprisoned in July after publicly leveling accusations of corruption and drug trafficking against an NI legislator. His family alleges he was tortured and killed.

Preelection polls suggested Bukele’s popularity was firm, but his party’s reputation proved more vulnerable. NI mayors especially faced mounting discontent as the cash-starved administration centralized and rationed municipal funding, forcing layoffs and service cuts. Anticipating backlash, Bukele had sought to shield himself and his legislators by separating the municipal elections from the presidential and legislative vote, scheduling the former for March 3.

Anxious to maintain his supermajority, Bukele moved to supply legislative ballots to Salvadorans casting votes abroad. (Inaugurated under the FMLN, previous exercises of voting abroad had been limited to presidential elections.) Bukele — who made El Salvador’s massive diaspora a critical segment of his base — arranged to have all the legislative votes of Salvadorans residing abroad, regardless of their birthplace, assigned to the populous department of San Salvador, which hosts the greatest number of legislative seats. The influx of diaspora support was calculated to offset any enduring opposition sympathies in the nation’s capital.

In June, Bukele’s legislators approved a package of radical electoral reforms designed to eradicate the opposition altogether. The reforms cut the number of legislators from eighty-four to sixty, significantly raising the threshold of votes for a single seat, while changing the formula for apportioning seats from one that benefited smaller parties to one that favors majority parties. At the local level, they eliminated 83 percent of municipalities, slashing their total from 262 to forty-four. By changing the rules of the game, Bukele further centralized his power, all but eliminating minority parties from the political system.

If that wasn’t enough, his legislators also withheld legally mandated public campaign financing from opposition parties, ensuring that only NI had the resources to advertise. In the lead-up to February 4, the airwaves were flooded with messages from the president warning that without his party’s qualified majority, “the opposition will free the gang members and use them to take back power.”

Bukele’s capture of autonomous public institutions further tipped the scales in his favor.

On this dramatically uneven playing field, Bukele’s capture of autonomous public institutions further tipped the scales in his favor. After his new legislative majority illegally replaced all five magistrates from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber in May 2021, the new justices dutifully reinterpreted the six different articles prohibiting presidential reelection to authorize Bukele’s anticipated bid for a second consecutive term.

In November 2023, the TSE, a pluralistic body established by the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended decades of US-backed military dictatorship, voted to approve the candidacy. A lone dissenting magistrate abstained, citing death threats and fears of imprisonment.

Election Day

At its best, El Salvador’s postwar electoral democracy has thrived on mutual mistrust. The three most-voted-for parties in the last presidential election each name a magistrate to the TSE. On Election Day, all competing parties supply volunteers to staff polling centers, ensuring representatives of every participating party at each of the thousands of voting tables across the country. Credentialed party monitors each receive official copies of the preliminary vote count tallies on election night from every voting table at centers across the country.

This carefully calibrated system had already suffered major setbacks before Bukele. Following the FMLN’s rise to the presidency in 2009, the traditional, oligarchic right launched a campaign to weaken the political role of parties as a means of undermining the governing left.

With support from the United States, the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court worked to departisanize politics, prohibiting party members from serving in a host of public positions, including staffing voting tables on Election Day. They introduced independent political candidates, mandated the inclusion of individual photos onto paper ballots, and authorized citizens to split their votes across legislative candidates from multiple parties.

In the end, Bukele profitably deployed the new postpartisan discourse against both the Left and the right-wing parties. But the damage to the political system was already done.

The law still required political parties to supply voting-table volunteers, but it was difficult for them to find unaffiliated sympathizers to work the polls. The vote count, especially for the legislature, became a nightmare. Exhausted poll workers — many now selected by a TSE lottery from an unwilling and disaffected pool of citizens after the prohibition on party members eliminated the most committed and experienced volunteers — were forced to wrestle with convoluted calculations across a series of spreadsheets into the early hours of the morning, eroding public confidence in a hard-won system.

After Bukele starved the opposition parties for campaign funds, they struggled to mobilize both voting-table workers and party monitors on February 4. Only NI managed to ensure representation at each voting table across the country. In many cases, voting-table volunteers that the opposition did accredit were swapped out at the last minute for NI-supplied personnel. In the absence of competition, the tense, partisan atmosphere that previously characterized Salvadoran elections was replaced by an eerie calm.

After Bukele starved the opposition parties for campaign funds, they struggled to mobilize both voting-table workers and party monitors on February 4.

The day was not without incident. In one San Salvador voting center, Salvadoran Canadian writer Carlos Borja staged a protest by reading aloud the six articles of the constitution that prohibit presidential reelection, for which he was promptly thrown in jail for three days. For the most part, however, voting proceeded as usual. At 5:00 p.m., the polling centers closed, and the voting-table volunteers began the work of breaking down the ballot boxes, sorting out the ballots, tallying up their results, and inputting them into the TSE-supplied IT system where they would appear in real time on the TSE preliminary results portal.

In years past, the TSE instructed polling centers to get the more complicated count — the legislative ballots — out of the way first, leaving the presidential votes for last. This year, the orders were reversed. Bukele did not want to delay news of his triumph.

So eager was the president to declare victory that, at 7:00 p.m., Bukele took to social media to announce that “according to our numbers,” he had won reelection with “more than 85 percent” of the vote, and that his party had secured fifty-eight of sixty legislative seats. This news was received with confusion by NI volunteers at polling centers across the country, most of whom had yet to begin reviewing legislative ballots.

Vote counting had gotten off to a slow start. Key materials, including the official results forms, were missing at voting centers across the country and took hours to deliver. Once most tables had finished counting their presidential ballots and the legislative numbers started to come in, however, something strange happened.

Those refreshing the TSE portal found impossible discrepancies in the data; at 10:00 p.m., with 31.49 percent of presidential votes registered, the system showed more ballots cast than eligible voters in the country. At the voting centers, poll workers spent hours trying to upload their data to no avail. The system was down.

Finally, the TSE directed the voting tables to fill out their results forms by hand. With 70.25 percent of presidential results registered and 5.06 percent of legislative results, the preliminary count had failed.

The Recount

On February 5, the TSE held a press conference and announced it would convene a full, ballot-by-ballot recount of the remaining 30 percent of presidential votes and all legislative votes. The magistrates gave no explanations for the technical debacle and took no questions.

Alarms began to go off that evening when TSE delegates for the capital department of San Salvador reported they had never received their corresponding ballots and called on their superiors to immediately produce the boxes. The TSE insisted the chain of custody for the ballots was never broken, but the press found boxes had been stored outside TSE properties, including an Armed Forces depot and private warehouses. Additional reports of stray ballots found in schools, and boxes delivered with visible damage and broken seals, further undermined confidence in the integrity of the votes to be reviewed in the final count.

The final presidential count began on the evening of February 7. By then, the TSE had qualified their decision: the presidential recount would only review preliminary-results forms. Ballots would be examined only for tables where no forms were registered.

The presidential count was fraught and full of irregularities, but Bukele’s victory was a foregone conclusion. The legislative results, on the other hand, remained a mystery.

But for as many as half of the voting tables, no original forms were found, and the TSE authorized the count to proceed on the basis of copies. The suppression of opposition parties in the process meant that often only NI party monitors and government agencies had obtained copies of the forms, leaving no independent means to verify the numbers.

The presidential recount concluded on February 9, with Bukele awarded 82.66 percent of the vote. The FMLN came in a distant second, with 204,167 votes against NI’s 2,701,725, followed by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, with 177,881.

The presidential count was fraught and full of irregularities, but Bukele’s victory was a foregone conclusion. The legislative results, on the other hand, remained a mystery. NI was sure to have secured the most seats, but the margin of that victory was far from certain; Bukele’s supermajority was on the line.

The legislative count began on the evening of February 11. It was chaos from the outset. Once again, the TSE walked back its decision to perform a full recount, this time announcing the preliminary classification of ballots would not be altered, meaning valid votes that had been disqualified by NI-dominated voting tables could not be reconsidered, and invalid votes that had been deemed admissible could not be discarded. As the count was set to begin, four of the five TSE alternate magistrates broke with their colleagues, declaring they were “no longer in a position to accept decisions that have not been issued according to law.”

NI party monitors and uncredentialed partisans swarmed the stadium where the count was held, harassing opposition representatives and international observers and threatening journalists. Soon, reports multiplied of reams of ballots being counted that showed no creases from being folded and inserted into the narrow slot of the TSE ballot boxes. Others had been marked with pen, instead of the TSE-issued crayons given to voters on Election Day. Discrepancies emerged between the number of people who signed in to vote and ballots marked at a given table; some tables were missing ballots, while others had too many.

NI party monitors and uncredentialed partisans swarmed the stadium where the recount was held, harassing opposition representatives and international observers and threatening journalists.

On February 12, the ARENA party withdrew in protest, warning that “the TSE is not providing conditions for a transparent process.” The following day, TSE magistrate Julio Olivo issued a statement demanding his colleagues guarantee equal representation for party monitors, admit credentialed personnel only, and address the credible claims of irregularities in the count.

On Friday, February 16, as the count turned to ballots from the most populous departments, police flooded the building in what FMLN legislator Anabel Belloso denounced as a clear “act of intimidation.” The next day, the Organization of American States’ (OAS) observation mission warned that the process had been commandeered by partisan interests and called on the TSE to “take control of the count.”

The Results

Two weeks after Election Day, the TSE’s results, contested as they are, show NI with just under 71 percent of legislative votes, securing fifty-four of sixty legislators — a supermajority. ARENA holds two seats; the right-wing National Coalition Party (PCN) holds another two, and the last two seats are divided between the right-wing Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and a new, center-right opposition party, Vamos.

The TSE’s own numbers show the FMLN increased its vote share from the 2019 midterms by some twenty thousand votes. Using the previous formula, the party would have grown its legislative group from four to five. Now, they will have none for the first time since laying down arms.

Had the diaspora vote not been directed to San Salvador, the FMLN would have secured a seat despite the formula change. But Bukele was thorough: the legislature that will be sworn in on May 1 will have no left representation at all.

Given the extraordinary failures of the TSE to guarantee free elections and deliver reliable results, El Salvador’s leading grassroots opposition movement, the Popular Rebellion and Resistance Bloc, called on the public to “reject this electoral farce” and demanded the elections be reconvened pending a restoration of democratic conditions. Opposition parties have submitted claims to annul the election results.

The official numbers aren’t trustworthy, but they reveal a substantial gap between the president’s popularity and that of his legislators. In the populous coastal department of La Libertad, for example, opposition parties were awarded less than 19 percent of presidential votes but 31 percent of legislative ballots. For all Bukele’s support, Salvadoran voters were not enthusiastic about one-party rule.

Time and again, the president has demonstrated a mistrust of his base, taking extraordinary measures to insulate his reign from democratic controls. These elections appeared to confirm his suspicions: Bukele’s much-touted popularity is more contingent than he would prefer to admit.

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