How Nayib Bukele Is Building an Autocratic El Salvador

Reelection Ban Is No Match for President with Judges in His Pocket

How Nayib Bukele is building an autocratic El Salvador. The president already controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The president already controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. (Sebastián Díaz)

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On July 9, 2023, the incumbent New Ideas party chose current Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele as candidate for the upcoming presidential election that will take place in February 2024. Despite the Salvadoran Constitution’s explicit and unmistakable prohibition on reelection, New Ideas nominated Bukele after handpicking judges for the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ).

This maneuver undermines El Salvador’s democracy and hastens autocracy. The president already controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

In May 2021, the Salvadoran Congress—controlled by New Ideas with 56 out of 84 seats—removed all five CSJ magistrates. The allegation was “fraud against the Constitution and breach of public duty.”

The magistrates denied every allegation by the incumbent party. In response, the judges accused Congress of violating Article 85 of the Constitution, which establishes that the state is “republican and democratic.”

Due to Bukele’s reduction of gang violence, however, he is the president with the best approval rating in the region. According to a Cid Gallup poll in June, 90 percent of Salvadorans approve of his administration. With such high popularity, Bukele can easily win in the first round of the upcoming presidential election.

Manipulation of Justice

Article 75.4 of the Constitution punishes any citizen who “supports or promotes reelection” by stripping his citizenship rights. However, constitutions are not self-enforcing documents.

In total, six articles prohibit reelection. Article 152 specifies the prohibition on reelection for presidents who have previously been in office for at least six months or within six months of the start of the next presidential term. In addition, Article 268 establishes that no article referring to reelection can be reformed.

A 2014 CSJ ruling, unfortunately, got a thin end of the wedge into the door for reelection. At that time the judges stated that the prohibition stood for 10 years after the end of a presidential term—even though the Salvadoran Constitution has no reference to 10 years.

It is clear as day that Salvadoran law bans a presidential reelection. That does not stop courts from making up different interpretations and pretending that they make sense, as occurred in 2014.

Bukele has not hidden his aspirations of ruling for a second consecutive term, so even the 10-year workaround is not good enough for him. In 2021 his party’s handpicked CSJ magistrates reinterpreted Article 152 of the Constitution. They asserted that Bukele could be a candidate if he were to leave office at least one day before his last six months in charge. The CSJ magistrates argued that El Salvador is a sovereign nation; therefore, citizens must decide. The magistrates played on populist sentiments and ignored that the Constitution is in place precisely to limit the tyranny of the majority.

Bukele will have to pick his temporary successor, and he must take office on December 1, six months before the current administration is supposed to finish up. According to the 2021 CSJ reinterpretation and Article 156, Bukele will also have to provide valid reasons for quitting the presidency. However, the Congress will determine the validity of his reasons and what exactly that means.

In 2021, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned the expulsion of the preceding CSJ magistrates. Both organizations accused the Bukele administration of undermining the judicial system. Bukele, on the other hand, praised the magistrates’ expulsion, saying it was necessary to improve the country’s judicial system.

The power that the incumbent administration holds over the judicial system is undermining the rule of law. Bukele is politicizing institutions and justice to favor his reelection, as Juan Orlando Hernández did previously in Honduras. This power can later be used to persecute and silence dissidents.

From Chaos to Perennial Emergency

Bukele appears to have succeeded in reducing the homicide rate in El Salvador, one of the most violent and corrupt countries in the world. The price has been his iron-fist policies and a seemingly permanent state of emergency.

In 2015, the country reached a historic homicide rate of 100 people per 100,000 inhabitants. At the time, this was the highest homicide rate in the world. Violent gangs—Maras Salvatruchas and Barrio 18 most prominently—have terrorized the country for over two decades through extortion, robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, rape, and murder. Some Salvadoran cities have become warzones, despite previous administrations’ attempts to reduce the gang presence.

When Bukele took office in 2018, the country’s homicide rate was 52 per 100,000 inhabitants. With the incumbent administration’s approach, the rate dropped to 8 in 2022, according to official government figures.

The magnitude of the change seems too good to be true, even if it conveys more than a kernel of truth. The Human Rights Observatory of the Central American University of El Salvador questioned this data in its 2022 report, contending that the deaths of alleged gang members in combat and in police custody were not being counted.

Bukele declared a state of emergency that started in March 2022 and is still in place. The Congress and executive have extended the so-called emergency 16 times in a row. The IACHR warns that the Bukele administration—by unlawfully extending the state of emergency—has violated some constitutional rights of citizens such as the right to a fair trial, self defense, and presumption of innocence.

Under the state of emergency, the state has already jailed over 71,000 people, which constitutes 1 percent of the population. In February, the Bukele administration inaugurated a new jail with the capacity for another 40,000 prisoners.

With his apparently successful approach to gang violence, Bukele has demonstrated to Salvadorans that they can live without fear of criminals. This helps Bukele construct a narrative about security under his presidency.

While murder appears to have come down, the same cannot be said for corruption. In 2022, El Salvador’s score was 33, equal to its 2017 score, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Democracy on Thin Ice

New Ideas is a party built around Bukele, and it appears incapable of selecting another candidate to continue his political project. Even if he has been successful with confronting gangs, his administration is undermining the rule of law to extend his time in office.

It is only a matter of time before we realize this administration is setting the foundation for an autocratic regime. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies states: “Consecutive reelections, generally, have … been shown to lead to a greater concentration of power in the president as well as less transparency and accountability.”

El Salvador’s democracy is facing a dangerous dilemma: allowing an authoritarian government in exchange for security or risking a return to chaos. Salvadoran democrats have the task of proposing a compelling alternative that can compete while also allowing proper development of the state with freedom and the rule of law.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.

Andrés Sebastián Díaz Ponce

Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.

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