Nayib Bukele wins the elections in El Salvador and authoritarianism advances through the continent

Image by Connectas. Used with permission.

This article was written by Suhelis Tejero Puntes and published in CONNECTAS on February 6, 2024. An edited version is republished in Global Voices under a media partnership. 

Nayib Bukele did not wait for the official results on Sunday February 4 to proclaim himself the winner of the elections that will allow him to remain in power for at least five more years. According to him, he triumphed “with more than 85% of the votes and a minimum of 58 out of 60 deputies in the Assembly,” which also ensures that he maintains control over parliament. Elated, he announced that “it would be the first time that a single party exists in a country in a fully democratic system.”

According to our numbers, we have won the presidential election with more than 85% of the votes and a minimum of 58 of 60 deputies in the Assembly. The record in the entire democratic history of the world. See you at 9pm in front of the National Palace. God bless El Salvador.

Right after the election, during a press conference, Bukele explained that:

Nosotros no estamos sustituyendo la democracia porque El Salvador jamás tuvo democracia. Esta es la primera vez en la historia que El Salvador tiene democracia, y no lo digo yo, lo dice el pueblo (…) La definición de democracia, la real, no la inventada por las élites, es demos y kratos, el poder del pueblo (…) El pueblo dice ‘queremos un régimen de excepción, queremos la política de seguridad del presidente”.

We are not replacing democracy because El Salvador never had democracy. This is the first time in history that El Salvador has a real democracy, and I's not because I say it, it's the people who have spoken (…) The definition of democracy, the real one, not the one invented by the elites, is demos and kratos, the power of the people (…) The people said: ‘we want a regime of exception, we want the president's security policy.

The next day, the digital newspaper El Faro was equally forceful, but in its criticism:

La breve, muy breve era democrática en la historia salvadoreña ha terminado ya. Nayib Bukele ha inscrito su nombre en una de las peores tradiciones políticas centroamericanas: la del dictador.

The brief, very brief democratic era in Salvadoran history has already ended. Nayib Bukele has inscribed his name in one of the worst Central American political traditions: that of the dictator.

The re-elected president forged his participation in the presidential elections in 2021, when his Nuevas Ideas party dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice from the legislative assembly and replaced them without respecting the legal process. Those very magistrates endorsed the immediate re-election of the president last year, although the constitution repeatedly prohibits it. Bukele's allied judges argued that the constitutional text did not respond to the current needs of the country and that only the people should decide whether the president continued or not.

These legal strategies were combined with a state of exception in force for almost two years, which suspends some constitutional guarantees, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to defense. Although it has its origin in the fight against violent Salvadoran gangs, known as “maras”, national and international civil organizations have claimed that Bukele's heavy hand has ended in human rights violations.

Additionally, the state of exception has also helped silence voices of dissent, through harassment, persecution and criminalization. A journalistic investigation by the independent media Malayerba and Connectas revealed that, in 2022, the Roundtable for the Right to Defend Rights registered on average one complaint of aggression against human rights defenders or journalists every 27 hours.

But is it possible to define whether a government is democratic or dictatorial in as simple a way as the Salvadoran president does? Last year the University of Gothenburg already warned in a report that El Salvador had stopped being a democracy. At that time it was barely known that the “coolest dictator in the world,” as Bukele himself identified himself on his X (formerly Twitter) account, wanted to stay in power.

This institute classifies the government of El Salvador as an electoral autocracy, that is, a system concentrated in the figure of Bukele, who after legitimately winning his first elections, governs without legal restrictions, although — at least for now — with the support of the population.

Salvadoran journalist Edwin Segura understands that there is little doubt about the authoritarian nature of Bukele, who manages “absolutely all institutions.” But this way of governing contrasts with the high popular acceptance it enjoys. “Bukele's exercise of power will continue to be autocratic and dictatorial, but we will have the difficulty of qualifying it as such because his election was won with the popular vote, although above the laws,” Segura highlights.

Less freedom and more opacity

For Bukele, non-governmental organizations and the media are two of his “most visible enemies.” These two sectors have uncovered the human rights violations committed during the state of exception, and the questionable agreements with gang members to pacify El Salvador, for years one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world.

The newspaper El Faro has been the target of the harshest criticism, thanks to the recent investigation that reveals how the government conspired with a gang leader to recapture “Crook,” leader of Mara Salvatrucha-13 and illegally released in mid-2022 The outlet received such pressure that last year that it moved its entire administrative area to Costa Rica for fear of reprisals.

Gabriel Labrador, a journalist for El Faro, is concerned that Bukele is intensifying his anti-democratic behavior with an already proven repertoire of attacks on the press and civil organizations, with a total lack of transparency in public policy decisions and also with persecutions.

The Association of Journalists of El Salvador has registered 300 attacks against the press in 2023, double that of the previous year, and during election day alone there were 173 complaints.

@apeselsalvador records 173 attacks against the press during election day in El Salvador

For his part, Segura believes that the population is still not aware of the undemocratic dangers that Bukele's government represents. He emphasizes that:

La gente no te dice que no hay libertad de expresión, pero cuando les preguntas si se expresan libremente, la mayoría dice que no se atreve.

People don't tell you that there is no freedom of expression, but when you ask them if they express themselves freely, the majority say they don't dare.

Weakened democracy in Latin America

Salvadorans were willing to massively re-elect a figure like Bukele, who has ignored the constitution and public institutions. What does that reveal about the state of democracy in the region?

First of all, it is very revealing that an antidemocratic president like that of El Salvador enjoys the highest popularity index of Latin American leaders, with support of almost 90 percent, according to the consulting firm Gallup, a fact that seems to underline the low satisfaction with democracy that exists in Latin America.

In its 2023 report, Latinobarómetro, a public opinion study that annually conducts around 20,000 interviews in 18 Latin American countries, pointed out a continuous and systematic deterioration of democracy and, worse, the “increase in indifference to the type of regime, the preference and attitudes in favor of authoritarianism, the collapse of the performance of governments and the image of political parties.” The study clarifies that “Democracy in several countries is in a critical state, while others no longer have democracy.”

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