As the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) came to a premature end last week, El Salvador surprised the world with the creation of one of its own. Nayib Bukele, the country’s new president, signed an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) to form the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). While the news to create an anti-graft mission in a country saddled by massive corruption is more than welcome, the lack of legitimacy and dependence on the executive weakens the CICIES’ mandate and threatens its future.
Bukele is El Salvador’s youngest president. At the age of 37, he broke with the two-party rule led by the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Before becoming president, Bukele was the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-2015) and San Salvador (2015-2018), the country’s capital.
Once a rising star within the FMLN, Bukele’s rogue personality and recurrent clashes with party leadership led to his expulsion from the former guerrilla group on questionable grounds. The move ultimately paved the way for his presidential ambitions. Running on a platform that relied on social media to denounce the shortcomings of 30 years of ARENA and FMLN government—including the country’s poverty rates, bordering 40 percent of the population ,and a homicide rate that at one point made El Salvador the most dangerous country in the world—the young mayor was able to touch the hearts and minds of Salvadoran voters. Last February, Bukele won 53 percent of the votes in a first-round poll.
Now, the president and his unconventional tactics are sending shockwaves across the political establishment. He continues to rely mostly on social media to give press briefings and layout his policy on the fight against the country’s maras, or violent gangs. Bukele has also gained notoriety for firing officials via Twitter.
Salvadorans, thus far, have welcomed the president’s tactics. A recent poll showed that Bukele’s approval rating stands at 90 percent, while his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), more than doubles the combined support for ARENA and the FMLN.
While Bukele’s honeymoon is running smoothly with Salvadorans, he’s rocking the establishment he’s trying to overhaul. Since El Salvador celebrates legislative elections a year before the presidential contest, the incoming president was not able to translate his presidential popularity into congressional support. His bloc counts with only 12 percent of seats in the unicameral legislature.
As a result, Bukele has scarce legislative gains to show for his first 100 days in office. Instead, the government and opposition have made headlines for vetoing and threatening to counter-veto legislation. With few friends to rely on to get bills passed, Bukele has turned to executive prerogatives to bypass the legislative deadlock. Last week’s CICIES announcement serves as a good example.
There is an urgent need for an anti-graft commission in El Salvador. Although the full extension of corruption remains unknown, the former presidencies of Antonio (“Tony”) Saca (2004-2009) and Mauricio Funes (2009-2014)—from ARENA and FMLN respectively—shed light on the subject. During the decade that both were in power, each president embezzled over $300 million. Tony Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence while Funes fled to Nicaragua, where the Ortega-Murillo regime recently granted him citizenship.
Even though the evidence points toward the need for an anti-graft commission, the legitimacy and autonomy of Bukele’s CICIES must change for it to be a success story. First, the CICIES’ status as a presidential decree weakens its mandate. Whereas Guatemala’s CICIG began as a presidential initiative in 2006, the country’s constitutional court and congress ratified it in 2007. Even the neighboring Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) received congressional approval.
Bukele stated that the CICIES would continue working without the endorsement of the legislative branch. This decision is a mistake. Unless the president negotiates the CICIES’ presence with the other branches of government, then its mandate and continuity will be met with severe resistance. Furthermore, since it’s relatively easy to reverse a presidential decree, there are no guarantees that the CICIES will survive beyond Bukele’s presidency. As investigations reveal new corruption scandals, whoever the sitting president is can revoke it with the stroke of a pen.
Second, the current status of the CICIES is also limited in autonomy. The agreement signed between Bukele and the OAS establishes that the commission will be dependent on the executive branch. For the CICIES to achieve its full potential, it should be autonomous from the presidency—whether it is Bukele or someone else. Executive oversight limits the anti-graft commission’s independence to investigate a full array of cases. It even opens the door to manipulation for political purposes.
If Bukele does not address the issues of legitimacy and autonomy from the outset, then he risks gambling with CICIES’ future. Fortunately, the problems mentioned above also present an opportunity for the government and opposition to reach common ground on a mechanism that could bring much-needed change to a country beleaguered by corruption.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello