The Bukele Effect

The growing popularity of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has spread throughout the region and can be seen in campaigns and elections in multiple countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is a pattern that will likely persist in 2024 throughout elections in the region.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has been making his mark on Salvadoran society as a president focused on security and violence reduction through his “Mano Dura” – or “Hard Hand”- policies. While his policies have raised concerns among human rights groups and international watchdogs, ninety percent of Salvadorans approve of him as president and are happy with the results of his changes according to The Economist. According to Defense Minister Francis Merino’s data, since becoming president in 2019 under the Grand Alliance for National Unity party (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA), El Salvador’s crime and violence rate has decreased 56.8% in 2022. Because of the decreased rate of crime and violence, combined with his high approval rating, Bukele has become a prominent figure to citizens and politicians across Latin America and the Caribbean. Bukele’s radical approach has been condemned by both human rights groups and defenders of democratic institutions. Human Rights Watch states that since his administration took office Bukele has “launched an assault on democratic institutions [and] poor accountability for human rights violations remain serious concerns. However, candidates in Latin America and The Caribbean are looking to him as a figure for inspiration whose policies, opinions, characteristics, and message they have integrated into their own campaigns. During previous elections in the region Bukele was already a figure that candidates imitated as part of their campaign. This is a pattern that will likely persist in 2024 throughout elections in the region.

During the 2022 Colombian elections a Dataexco opinion poll “asked Colombians if they would prefer a president like Bukele: 55% said yes.” Presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernandez publicly showed his admiration for Bukele, making a trip to El Salvador to “study Bukele’s policies firsthand.” Additionally, Hernandez, like Bukele, turned to social media influencers as part of his campaign strategy. In August of 2023, Ecuador held presidential elections in the shadow of violent crimes during the campaigning period, including the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Polling showed that Bukele was “twice as popular among Ecuadorians as any of their own politicians.” Among the candidates was Jan Topić, whose entire platform was focused on security and campaigned on the slogan “Ecuador Sin Miedo” (Ecuador without fear). Topić gained the nickname “The Ecuadorian Bukele” not only because he voiced his approval of Bukele’s policies but also due to Topic’s choice of dress, appearing to emulate Bukele with the same style of beard and leather jackets Bukele is known for. During the 2023 Guatemalan presidential election multiple candidates mentioned Bukele while campaigning. Sandra Torres, said that she “plans to implement President Bukele’s strategies…they are working.” Candidate Zury Rios has called Bukele’s security policy a “model” and has even praised his policies publicly on social media. These are only three country examples where candidates have mentioned or copied Bukele in their campaign.

2024 will hold multiple elections in Latin America and the Caribbean, including El Salvador’s on February 4th, with Panama, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay to follow. In countries where violence and security are a priority for citizens, political candidates could be more likely to associate themselves with Bukele and his policies in their campaign messaging due to his success in lowering violent crime and improving security while maintaining a high approval rating. Those with political ambitions hope to gain supporters by showing how they are similar to him. Previous years’ elections showed us the pattern of candidates involving Bukele, his policies, and his message into their campaigning. As we approach 2024 it is important to note how Salvadoran citizens cast their vote. Following the El Salvador elections, it will be interesting to watch what types of candidates and campaign messages resonate with citizens in Panama, he Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay and influence who they cast their vote for. Only when campaigning begins will we be able to observe if the Bukele effect continues during the 2024 elections.

Ariana Epstein
Ariana Epstein
Ariana Epstein is a Senior Program Associate at the International Republican Institute (IRI). The thoughts and opinions expressed in this piece are her own.