El Salvador elections could give Bukele control

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San Salvador (AFP)

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele, accused of authoritarianism by detractors, stands to win an absolute majority in parliament in elections Sunday for which his party is polling strongly.

If the country's 5.4 million registered voters confirm the polling trends, Bukele, who founded the New Ideas party in 2018, could finally "concentrate the power" in his own hands, according to Saul Banos of the Fespad legal think tank.

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

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 Congress.

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."

A recent poll has projected 55 Congressional seats for Bukele's party out of 84 up for grabs, a comfortable majority which would allow the president to "approve, reform or abolish laws at will," according to Banos.

He would also be able to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor's office -- two institutions with which he has already clashed.

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 towards dialogue and compromise.

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

- Man of the people -

Bukele likes to go out in public in jeans and a leather jacket, and often wears a baseball cap on backwards.

He uses social media to his advantage and has cultivated an image as a man of the people in a country where the traditional parties are viewed as corrupt, observers say.

"I hope that my president will emerge stronger from these elections. This is the first time we have a government that looks after us, the poor," Rosa Pineda, who sells clothes in the streets of San Salvador, told AFP.

Taxi driver Miguel Galves said he was concerned about a concentration of power in Bukele's hands, but will nonetheless vote for the New Ideas candidate in his constituency.

The other parties, Galves said, "have been there for years and do nothing but steal."

According to political analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez, Bukele has successfully portrayed himself as a leader addressing people's immediate needs.

"He gave them food, he gave them money and other help that no one ever gave before."

But outgoing Parliamentary President Mario Ponce has warned against creeping "authoritarianism" as Bukele stands accused of breaking electoral rules in campaigning for his party beyond the cut-off date.

"People have to go out and vote to maintain the balance of democracy," Ponce has said.

El Salvador's highest electoral body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, has asked the United Nations, European Union and Organization of American States to hasten sending observers for the elections after political violence claimed two lives last month.

Results are not expected before next week.