Illustration Credit: Otto/El Faro
On February 28, El Salvador held legislative elections resulting in President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party on track to win 57 to 61 of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly according to the preliminary vote count. The party’s electoral sweep increasingly consolidates President Bukele’s control. Critics fear that with a majority, the president may try to abolish presidential term limits and “appoint new members to the Supreme Court.” President Bukele denies the accusations of authoritarian tendencies—as showcased during his armed occupation of the legislature—and rejects traditional party lines as being “obsolete” and “corrupt,” with his party serving mainly as a platform to promote his own administration’s particular agenda.
Despite winning a majority, President Bukele and his party claimed that they were victims of election fraud. The Nuevas Ideas party alleged that polling centers opened late and that people had been illegally prohibited from voting in an attempt to cast doubt on the results of the election. However, Nuevas Ideas also broke election laws that prohibit campaigning three days before an election, which President Bukele ignored, encouraging voters to elect Nuevas Ideas. The accusations of fraud, reminiscent of the recent U.S. presidential elections, prompted a response from the United States Embassy in San Salvador, saying, “It is very important not to say that there is fraud where there is no fraud.”
Before becoming president, Bukele was a public relations executive. This background has helped him skillfully wield social media, especially Twitter, to control the narrative and “demonize the opposition,” earning him an almost 90 percent approval rating and making him the most popular president in the region. For the past year and a half, the opposition—the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—have joined together to stop the president’s actions. Still, they have been unable to regain popular support. If unchecked, critics fear that El Salvador could follow the same trajectory as Nicaragua and Honduras, where the governing administrations have consolidated power to such an extent that the legislative and judicial institutions can no longer safeguard the democratic process.
Democratic backsliding has increased throughout the Western Hemisphere as power has become increasingly centralized around populist presidents. The current pushback to democracy is poised to be a major focus in the Biden administration’s Western Hemisphere foreign policy agenda.