In El Salvador’s presidential contest on Sunday, there is no real competition: Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who reshaped the country with a crackdown on gangs and civil liberties, is expected to win re-election in a landslide.
Legal scholars say Mr. Bukele, 42, is violating a constitutional ban by seeking a second consecutive term, but most Salvadorans don’t seem to care.
Surveys show that voters overwhelmingly support Mr. Bukele’s candidacy and will likely cement his party’s supermajority in the legislature on Sunday, extending the leader’s unimpeded control over every lever of government for years.
“They want to show that they can do this, they want to show they have popular backing for doing it — and they want everyone to just live with it, regardless of the Constitution,” said Ricardo Zuniga, who served as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to Central America under President Biden. “It’s a demonstration of power.”
Nearly 80 percent of Salvadorans said they supported Mr. Bukele’s candidacy in one recent survey. The same survey shows his New Ideas party could win as many as 57 of 60 seats in the legislature, after it made changes to the composition of the legislative assembly that analysts say benefited the governing party.
Mr. Bukele’s main selling point has been the nearly two-year state of emergency his government imposed after the gangs that had long dominated the streets went on a killing spree in March 2022.
The authorities have arrested roughly 75,000 people since then, with no due process, and put key constitutional rights on hold indefinitely.
But the effect has been undeniable. The three gangs that made the country one of the most violent places on earth have lost any semblance of power.
“The main pillar on which he has built his popular backing is what the government has done on security,” said Omar Serrano, vice chancellor for social outreach at José Simeón Cañas Central American University. “The state of emergency is what people value most.”
Mr. Bukele, descendant of a family of Palestinian migrants who arrived in Central America in the early 20th century, was one of eight siblings and half siblings raised in Escalón, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in San Salvador, the capital. He studied at an elite, bilingual high school.
After working as a publicist on political campaigns, Mr. Bukele moved into politics in 2011 and quickly rose to prominence. At the age of 30, he became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan, a small town on the outskirts of San Salvador, representing the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party, or F.M.L.N.
Three years later, he became mayor of San Salvador, a post considered a steppingstone to the presidency. In the lead-up to the 2019 presidential elections, he created his own New Ideas party but ran as a candidate of a small right-wing party, GANA, in order to meet the legal requirements to compete. He sailed to victory on a vow to break with the corrupt politics of the past.
Once in office, though, he turned to tactics that many viewed as a return to the autocratic leadership the country had fought a 12-year civil war over.
He marched soldiers into the legislative assembly to pressure lawmakers to pass government funding and later replaced an attorney general who was investigating corruption in his administration.
In 2021, after winning a supermajority in Congress, his party replaced top judges on the Supreme Court, who within months reinterpreted the Constitution to allow Mr. Bukele to compete again for the presidency.
Yet his appeal has hardly wavered at home and among a remarkable contingent of fans across the hemisphere. Politicians from Colombia to Ecuador have vowed to emulate him.
Erlinda Vela Gutiérrez, who runs a stall selling tchotchkes in a San Salvador market, said she had been inundated by tourists requesting paraphernalia bearing the face of the man she called “my beloved president.” She has magnets, mugs, key chains and figurines.
Ms. Vela Gutiérrez, who lives in Las Margaritas, a neighborhood outside San Salvador that was once a bastion of the ruthless MS-13 gang, said whether Mr. Bukele was breaking democratic rules was not a concern.
“If he runs as president 10 times, I will accept him 10 times,” she said. Already, she said, she has sent her family in Maryland a batch of “hats, T-shirts, jackets, only of Bukele.”
This election will be the first time that Salvadorans living abroad vote en masse, after the government allowed voting in advance on an app, a move analysts say was designed to harness Mr. Bukele’s popularity among those who migrated to the United States.
More than 140,000 Salvadorans abroad have already voted, compared with fewer than 4,000 in the last election, five years ago. Voting in the election has surged in states with large Salvadoran communities, such as Virginia, California and New York.
The five opposition candidates for president have gained almost no traction in the polls, including contenders from the right-wing Arena and leftist F.M.L.N party, which had dominated Salvadoran politics for 30 years.