SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Only a few hours after voting was concluded, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele declared his victory with more than 85 percent of the vote on Feb. 4.

He celebrated the fact that he will have a new five-year term, something that has never happened since the promulgation of the Central American nation’s Constitution in the 1980s.

The fact that vote counting had not been concluded when he made his declaration and the electoral authority hadn’t declared a winner at that point was among a series of alleged irregularities in the process, which have been denounced by the opposition..

Over the past two years, Bukele has kept the Central American nation in a “state of exception,” declared as part of a plan to combat large mafia-like criminal organizations that control drug trafficking in the country. More than 75,000 people have been detained since 2022, most of them without due legal process.

Most members of the clergy avoid openly criticizing Bukele, but the hundreds of complaints of human rights violations connected to his mass incarceration program have led some priests to publicly speak against the president.

His reelection bid has also provoked reactions from Church members, since the Salvadoran Constitution only allows a former president to be elected again after a 5-year interval. However, Bukele obtained permission from the judiciary, which is loyal to him, to run for another term.

Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop emeritus of San Salvador, was among the critics of Bukele’s maneuver.  On Feb. 2, he told the Spanish Catholic website Alfa y Omega that El Salvador could become a “one-party state.”

“There is a scandalous disproportion between the resources of the ruling party and those of the opposition parties. [The people] seem not to realize what it means to be able to change the direction of the country with their vote,” Rosa Chávez said.

After his victory, Jesuit Father Rodolfo Cardenal, who heads the Oscar Romero Center, published a fierce condemnation of Bukele’s reelection.

Cardenal mentioned several irregularities, like the alleged existence of more votes than registered voters, the government’s failure to protect the ballots, and the malfunctioning of the digital platform used during the process.

“Due to lack of data, Bukele’s legislative victory is mere speculation. The absence of electronic support prevented scrutiny. The fiasco was so shocking that the electoral authority decided to open the ballot boxes to count the votes. Opposition parties talk about annulling the elections,” Cardenal said.

He said there is evidence that only 40 percent of the electors went to vote, something that indicates Bukele’s popularity may not be as big as shown in surveys.

Another Jesuit priest, Spanish-born Father José María Tojeira, agrees with Cardenal. He said, however, that the irregularities “were probably the result of the Electoral Court’s incompetence.”

“Bukele didn’t need to do anything wrong in order to win. That’s why some people, including myself, believe that the Electoral Court was unable to carry out the process accordingly,” he told Crux.

But relevant incidents were noticed, Tojeira said, like Bukele’s supporters wearing the party’s clothes during voting and a massive presence of his party colleagues in the place where votes were being counted.

The national organization of basic ecclesial communities – known in Latin America as CEBs – inspired by the Liberation Theology movement, released a statement on Feb. 9 denouncing similar irregularities, like the “double counting of votes” due to the malfunction of the digital platform and the disappearance of ballot boxes.

But the movement’s central complaint was the fact that the Electoral Court allowed Bukele to be a candidate despite the constitutional prohibition. The CEB is demanding new elections.

“The evidence of fraud is clear. Everybody knows what happened. But the opposition and the popular movements aren’t organized enough to promote massive street protests,” José Salvador, who heads a CEB in the region of Bajo Lempa, told Crux.

Salvador said that the political parties in the opposition are too weak now and have little support. In his opinion, they will be persecuted by the regime in the next few years.

“The social movements are also demobilized. We publicize our denouncements and stances, but we’re not strong among the people,” he said.

That includes the Church, which “doesn’t want a confrontation with the government, maybe because it fears what’s happening now in Nicaragua,” Salvador said.

“As CEBs, we argue that this regime represents death to Salvadorans. We have been fighting against the state of exception. But Bukele managed to impose himself as a candidate and will keep this situation for years,” he said.

Samuel Ramírez, a leader of the Movement of the Victims of the Regime (MOVIR), told Crux that Bukele had been preparing his maneuvers for years. He reduced the number of deputies in Congress from 84 to 60, took all power from the smaller parties, and legally extinguished more than 200 cities where he had low support, creating new ones in regions where his constituency is large.

“He spent millions of dollars in a digital campaign and didn’t allow the other parties to have access to state money. His victory will allow him to maintain the state of exception, which has already taken 22 months,” Ramírez said.

He also said the social problems in El Salvador will not be solved.

“The cost of living is unbearable, health and education are weak, there are no projects to incentivize the nation’s development. We’ll have more poverty and more repression,” Ramírez said.

Tojeira said it’s up to the Church to take part in the education of the Salvadoran people, insisting on themes like human rights, freedom, and the Catholic social doctrine.

“We still have enough freedom to analyze the current situation and talk about it with the people. The Church can contribute to raising awareness and increase rationality among the people,” the priest said.