This past Sunday, Nayib Bukele, the charismatic leader known for his innovative administration and for challenging the boundaries of traditional politics, was re-elected as president of El Salvador. Bukele secured a second term consolidating his leadership in the small Central American nation. Despite criticism and debate over the constitutional legality of his candidacy, Bukele maintains his popularity thanks to his focus on security and modernization of the country.
According to preliminary results, Bukele led the vote count with 87 percent. This massive support is a testament to his popularity among Salvadorans, who appreciate him for drastically reducing the crime and violence rate.
El Salvador had 2,398 homicides in 2019, the year Bukele assumed office. There were, on average, seven murders committed each day in a nation with a population of only six million. El Salvador's secretary of defense claims that by 2022, the country's murder rate dropped to 496.
The president achieved that reduction by implementing, among other measures, a strict regime of state of emergency orders and an aggressive crackdown on gang members and criminals. His extreme measures have been the subject of criticism by human rights defenders inside and outside El Salvador. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in prison.
Bukele will now be the first president to be reelected in the past 32 years thanks to a legal maneuver, in which the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court - appointed by a Congress with a pro-government majority - changed the criteria for interpreting the Constitution without following the legal procedure.
Despite the criticism, many Salvadoran evangelical Christians have shown significant support for the president. Although Bukele has stated that he is not a practicing religious person, he has expressed his belief in God and has shown a notable closeness with certain evangelical leaders in the country.
"To the atheists, to the agnostics, we respect you and we are your friends, but let us believe in God, and let us give Him the glory if we want it," Bukele said Sunday night in front of the crowd that cheered for him after learning the election results.
El Salvador has a large evangelical population with 44 percent of Salvadorans identifying themselves as evangelicals, according to a 2020 Gallup survey.
“El Salvador is demonstrating as a living testimony that things can change if God so decides,” Bukele told Christian journalists and communicators in early October. “God’s goal was to tell all the nations of the world ‘ask, give Me the glory, and I will heal your land.’ Nothing is impossible for God, we all know that, but here He demonstrated it again”, Bukele said at that time about the drop in crime rates.
This stance has resonated with many evangelical Christians who see in Bukele a leader who shares their core values.
Pastor Edgar López Bertrand Jr., popularly known in El Salvador as Toby Jr., leads one of the largest churches in the country and has had a significant media presence in recent years. López Bertrand defends Bukele's imposition of the state of emergency.
The pastor acknowledged the "collateral damage" caused by the regime, which has led to the detention of a number of innocent people but justified it by pointing out that this was simply inevitable: "When you detect a cancer cell, you don't just irradiate that cell, there is always collateral damage and side effects, but then what you get is a strengthened body," said Pastor López.
But not all evangelical pastors and leaders support the president. "There is a manipulation of the elections and the rules of the game," so that President Bukele perpetuates himself in power, denounced the general pastor of the Elim Christian Mission, Mario Vega, leader of the second largest evangelical congregation in El Salvador.
"There is an agenda that consists of concentration of power, concealment of information, discretional management of money that is clearer than ever, and now a manipulation of the elections and the rules of the game with the purpose of perpetuating themselves in power. Now there is no doubt about that," emphasized Vega when interviewed by a Salvadoran national media.
Statements from experts and authorities on Bukele's reelection are mixed. According to the Salvadoran think tank Fundaungo, 83.2% of El Salvador's citizens expressed their interest in voting in the elections. On the other hand, some experts have pointed out that Salvadorans are feeling the high cost of living and signs of corruption.
What is certain is that Bukele marks a milestone in El Salvador's political history. His leadership and the policies implemented during his first term have resonated with Salvadorans. His second term, however, will be marked by significant challenges, including the need to address economic concerns more seriously.