El Salvador votes with Bukele allies polling strong

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SAN SALVADOR: Salvadorans went to the polls on Sunday (Feb 28) to elect new lawmakers and mayors in a vote that could see President Nayib Bukele’s backers secure an absolute majority in parliament.

Opinion polls projected victory for the New Ideas party founded by Bukele in 2018, and the Grand Alliance for National Unity through which he first came to power two years ago.

Long queues of voters wearing face masks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic had formed at voting stations ahead of polls opening at 7:00 am (1300 GMT).

Some 40,000 police, soldiers and international observers were deployed to oversee the ballot, preceded by political violence which claimed two lives last month.

“We hope to have a peaceful election day, a truly civic celebration crowned by massive participation of the electorate,” Dora Martinez, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) told national TV.

Some 5.4 million voters are registered to elect 84 members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly from among 10 political parties.

A recent poll projected Bukele allies would take a comfortable majority in parliament, which would allow the president — accused of authoritarianism by his detractors — more power over lawmaking and reform.

Elected in 2019 for a five-year term, 39-year-old Bukele has had trouble getting some of his programs approved. Parliament has been dominated by two opposition parties — the rightwing Arena and leftist FMLN.

– ‘Authoritarianism’ –

Last February, in a bid to intimidate MPs into approving a loan to finance an anti-crime plan, the president ordered heavily armed police and soldiers to storm parliament.

This move led to lawmakers calling this month for a Congressional committee to declare Bukele “mentally incapable” of governing — a move he denounced as an “attempted parliamentary coup.”

Since the signing of a peace deal in 1992 to end more than a decade of civil war, no party has won an absolute majority in Parliament, forcing opposing political groupings into dialogue and compromise.

With a majority, Bukele would also be able to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor’s office — institutions with which he has already clashed.

Polls are also predicting a victory for Bukele backers in the vote for 262 mayors and for El Salvador’s 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament.

Outgoing Parliamentary President Mario Ponce has warned against creeping “authoritarianism” ahead of the election, even as Bukele broke electoral rules in campaigning for his party beyond the cut-off date.

The influential Jose Simeon Canas Central American University said in an editorial that the elections were happening “in an atmosphere of tension and confrontation that could lead to violence and cast doubt on the results.”

And the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of El Salvador denounced pre-election violence which saw two FMLN activists shot dead while campaigning in late January in the worst political attack in El Salvador in decades.

The attack came days after Bukele criticized the 1992 peace accords.

Preliminary results are expected late Sunday, but the official outcome may not be known for two weeks.

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