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Nayib Bukele addresses supporters in San Salvador, after his victory. Photo: AP

Youthful, leather jacket-loving Nayib Bukele elected president of El Salvador, one the world’s most murderous countries

  • Nayib Bukele, an avid social media user who often sports a black leather jacket, won more votes than his two closest rivals combined
  • Gang violence has made tiny El Salvador one of the world’s most murderous countries, driving Salvadorans to flee to the north

Salvadorans have elected Nayib Bukele, the popular former mayor of San Salvador, as the Central American country’s new president - a result that ends the near 30-year grip on power of its two largest parties.

“At this moment we can announce with total certainty that we have won the presidency,” the 37-year-old Bukele, of the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, told supporters late Sunday.

A few minutes earlier, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had awarded him 52.93 per cent of the vote with almost 70 per cent of ballots counted. It went on to announce preliminary results gave Bukele an “irreversible” lead of 53.78 per cent of votes with 87.67 per cent counted.

Bukele, an avid social media user who often sports a black leather jacket, has promised to increase investment in education and fight corruption - but his main task will be to implement new programmes to confront insecurity.

He will also have to form an alliance with the right, which dominates congress.

Nayib Bukele is an avid social media user. Photo: AP

Bukele’s opponents - Carlos Calleja of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and Hugo Martinez of the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) - recognised the win.

For nearly three decades, their parties have had a firm hold on Salvadoran politics.

“We recognise the results of these elections. We are going to call the president-elect to wish him luck in facing the challenges in this country,” said Calleja, the runner-up. The FMLN’s Martinez took third place.

Some 5.2 million people took part in the election, according to the elections authority chief Julio Olivo.

Voters formed long queues outside polling stations in parts of the capital, where gang-violence and insecurity are endemic. El Salvador is among the world’s most violent countries with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens.

El Salvador has been battered by gang violence, which authorities say was the source of most of the 3,340 murders reported last year. File photo: AFP

The violence is a key factor driving migration to the United States.

“The violence here is out of control,” said Gerardo Alfaro Gomez Castillo, 37, a security guard.

“Only Bukele’s security plan is appealing to me because it’s something different than the measures we’ve seen in the last 15 years.”

Outgoing President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said voting proceeded “very calmly and very normally”.

Some 23,000 police officers and 15,000 soldiers were deployed to protect the sixth presidential election since democracy was restored in 1992 - after 12 years of bloody civil war between state security forces and leftist guerillas.

El Salvador has been battered by gang violence, which authorities say was the source of most of the 3,340 murders reported last year.

Gangs are said to have 70,000 members, 17,000 of whom are behind bars.

Supporters celebrate Nayib Bukele's victory. Photo: AFP

The run-up to the election was marked by violence, with 285 people killed in January, including eight police officers.

That was fewer homicides than in January 2018, but the targeting of police was seen as a sign that gangs might be pressuring candidates to negotiate with them once they were elected.

“The new president must offer daring security solutions,” Carlos Carcach, an analyst and professor at the Higher School of Economy and Business in El Salvador, said.

Another challenge will be to reduce illegal immigration to the United States - given US President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off aid if the stream of Central American migrants heading there is not stopped.
Nayib Bukele celebrates alongside his wife Gabriela Rodriguez after winning the presidential election. Photo: AFP

During the last few months of 2018, more than 3,000 Salvadorans joined caravans marching towards the United States, fleeing gangs and a lack of jobs.

“You think and rethink about whether or not it’s worth staying in this country or have the courage to go and try your luck in another,” Sergio Hernandez, a 41-year-old carpenter said.

“It’s terrible with the gangs, someone has to do something because it’s unbearable.”

The other main worry for Salvadorans is the economy. Although it grew by 2.6 per cent in 2018, its biggest rise in five years, that is considered insufficient to cover the demand for new employment.

Bukele will have to juggle the need to raise taxes to cover an external debt of more than US$9.5 billion while trying to maintain social programmes in a country where the minimum wage of US$300 a month is barely enough to buy food.

“The challenge for the new leader is to satisfy the demand for fairer salaries and avoid the social exclusion that forces many to flee the country,” said Raul Moreno, an economics professor at the University of El Salvador.

Just over 30 per cent of El Salvador’s 6.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Additional reporting by Reuters and The Washington Post