Bukele Wins By Landslide as El Salvador Backs Gang Crackdown

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(Bloomberg) -- Nayib Bukele won one of the biggest landslides in recent world history as El Salvador voters backed his draconian anti-gang policies and awarded him a second presidential term by an overwhelming majority.

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With 70% of ballots tallied, the nation’s electoral authority reported Bukele had about 83.1% of the votes, compared to 6.9% for his closest rival.

In a speech to supporters Sunday night from a balcony at the national palace, Bukele said the opposition had been “pulverized”, and that his party had also won 58 of the 60 seats in congress.

“The people of El Salvador spoke, and they didn’t just speak loud and clear, but spoke in the most convincing fashion in the history of democracy,” Bukele said, entering and exiting to the 1980s hit “It’s the End of the World As We Know it,” by U.S. rock band R.E.M.

The 42-year-old former publicist has used emergency powers to lock up tens of thousands of alleged gangsters over the last two years, a measure popular with voters who say the streets are safer in what was not long ago one of Latin America’s most dangerous nations. Some human rights groups have criticized the lack of due process, allege that many innocent people have been caught up in the round ups, and have questioned the government’s crime figures.

From Honduras to Peru, leaders across the region are now copying his strategy as they grapple with violent crime.

Read More: Bukele’s Brutal Crime Crackdown Gets Mimicked in Latin America

Once considered the world’s murder capital, El Salvador saw killings fall to historic lows last year, official figures show. The number of Salvadorans caught crossing the US border fell by more than a third in fiscal year 2023, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

El Salvador has now jailed 1.6% of its population, the world’s highest incarceration rate. Rights groups accuse the government of violating due process and manipulating crime data, and have also criticized Bukele’s bid for reelection. In 2021, his party’s lawmakers voted to remove all of the Supreme Court’s top judges, and appointed new magistrates who ruled Bukele could run for a second consecutive term.

Bukele’s campaign sponsored ads claiming opposition candidates would release hordes of prisoners if elected, causing a spike in violence. He promised on Sunday to keep harsh anti-crime policies in place during a second term.

“You saw how El Salvador went from the most dangerous country to the safest, now wait and see what what we do in the next 5 years,” Bukele said Sunday. “We will continue doing the impossible.”

Bitcoin and the IMF

Bukele spooked markets by making Bitcoin legal tender in 2021, snubbing warnings from the US government and the International Monetary Fund about the risks of cryptocurrency. His administration even used public funds to purchase more than $100 million in Bitcoin.

He has since assuaged investor fears by making the country’s foreign debt payments on time, and recently reaffirmed his commitment to pay, during a January meeting with bondholders. The government also vowed to work with the IMF if reelected.

“These elections will provide Bukele with an unprecedented popular mandate, which could be used to sign an IMF agreement following renewed talks,” Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow wrote in a note. “Negotiations between the government and the fund have made substantial progress over the past several months.”

Read More: El Salvador Bonds Soar as Bukele Vows to Work With IMF

The IMF has urged El Salvador to drop Bitcoin as official currency, citing risks to financial stability and consumer protection. Bukele promised in December to issue long-awaited Bitcoin-backed bonds during the first quarter of this year, and his running mate Felix Ulloa said the government will remain committed to the cryptocurrency after the election.

The market’s focus “will be on prospects of an IMF program given fiscal sustainability concerns and efforts to enhance economic growth,” Barclays analyst Nestor Rodriguez wrote in a Feb. 1 note.

(Updates with 70% of votes counted.)

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