Source: Reuters / Jose Cabezas
After securing a supermajority in last February’s legislative elections, President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele is wasting no time in consolidating his institutional power by dismantling independent judicial institutions. In an earlier article, “El Salvador’s legislative elections and the challenge to democracy,” we speculated that Bukele could use his new legislative mandate and qualified majority within the country’s National Assembly to remake the judiciary. Sure enough, in a move reminiscent of former President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre”—when in 1973, under pressure from the Watergate investigation, Nixon fired several Department of Justice officials, including Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox—the new National Assembly successfully removed all newly-sworn in judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, replacing them with loyalists of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party. The legislative majority then fired the attorney general, Raúl Melara.
These are surely just the first moves. Everything indicates that, in the coming days or weeks, Bukele’s legislative majority will move to replace the Human Rights Prosecutor, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the Court of Auditors. These institutions represent key pillars of the necessary systems of separation of powers and checks and balances essential for a functioning democracy. Further changes are also anticipated, including constitutional changes that would lift the current prohibition on consecutive presidential terms. Such actions, if enacted, would effectively dismantle any independent institutional check on executive power, granting President Bukele unfettered control.
Supporters of Bukele have defended the removal of the constitutional court justices by pointing to Article 186 of the Salvadoran Constitution, which provides that the Legislative Assembly can dismiss judges “for specific reasons, previously established by law,” so long as the initiative has the support of two-thirds of deputies. Legislators have argued that the expelled judges “acted against the Constitution, putting first private interests over the health and life of the entire population.” Under particular scrutiny was a series of 2020 rulings that declared several of the Bukele administration’s COVID-19 policies unconstitutional. However, the constitutional provisions of Article 186 are clearly meant to cover “causes” related to malfeasance or abuse of power, not policy differences or conflicts over constitutional interpretations.
The use of Article 186 is a pretext for the exercise of naked majority rule. In the case of the attorney general, legislators claimed alleged links between Melara and the opposition Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party. The real reason for his removal, however, seems to be a series of public disagreements with Bukele. Under Melara, the attorney general’s office initiated several uncomfortable investigations for the president, including investigations into alleged negotiations between the government and criminal gangs and a criminal probe into the government’s spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fear is that the new attorney general will shelve these investigations and turn the attorney general’s office into a tool of the executive branch, rather than a mechanism for ensuring accountability and transparency.
President Bukele has also justified his move in terms of the historic mandate he and his allies achieved in the presidential and legislative elections. As Bukele said on Twitter, “In El Salvador it took us 30 years to free ourselves from the regime. We are not going back now.” The “regime” that Bukele refers to is the historic domination of Salvadoran politics by the traditional parties, ARENA and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), which governed the country from the conclusion of the the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992 until 2019. Indeed, the president has successfully demonized the traditional elites in the eyes of the Salvadoran public and currently enjoys substantial popular support, with some polling showing him with upwards of 80 percent approval. Bukele’s popularity—driven by savvy exploitation of the media, state resources, and political polarization—has given him a powerful tool to continue his drive to undermine democracy, consolidate power, and ignore domestic and international critics alike.
Unfortunately, President Bukele is not the first leader to use their popular support and electoral mandate to undermine democracy. We have seen this movie before, and the ending is predictable. From Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, the playbook is familiar: win an election, and then subsequently use the levers of state power to manipulate the media; exacerbate social and political differences by demonizing the opposition and inventing polarizing dichotomies, such as “the people versus the elites,” or “new versus old”; use state resources and control over state media to win future elections, eventually coming to dominate the legislative branch; then, with a pliant legislature, seek to remake the political system by changing the constitution, eliminating or subordinating independent agencies, and politicizing the security forces; finally, use these newly created rules to maintain and extend their time in power. Nearby Nicaragua is a clear example of what can happen when a leader is allowed to manipulate the political system to consolidate power. El Salvador’s trajectory, unless the international community and the domestic opposition react quickly, will be tragic and predictable.
Can the U.S. and the international community react in time to stop Bukele?
The U.S. condemned Bukele’s actions almost immediately. Vice President Kamala Harris stated that “an independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy” while pressing President Bukele to respect democratic institutions. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with President Bukele to express American concerns over the actions taken by the National Assembly.
Within the region, concern regarding El Salvador’s disruption of democratic institutions was similarly swift. The Organization of American States (OAS) released a statement criticizing the actions by the Salvadoran legislature, warning that “when the majorities eliminate the systems of checks and balances in the institutional framework, they are altering the essence of its operation.” They also raised the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) as a potential mechanism to deploy if Bukele continues to dismantle democratic institutions. Julio Borges, the Special Commissioner for Foreign Relations for the interim government of Venezuela, went so far as to call Bukele’s actions those of a “dictatorship.”
In many ways, Bukele’s actions seemed inevitable, despite promising engagements between El Salvador and the U.S. immediately following February’s legislative elections. Back then, the U.S. congratulated the people of El Salvador for holding successful legislative elections—elections that saw Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party gain 56 of 84 legislative seats. Since March, El Salvador has received nearly 130,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses through the predominantly U.S.-funded COVAX program. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) donated an additional USD $2 million to the Salvadoran government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling USD $28 million donated to El Salvador since the onset of the global health crisis.
The goodwill was short lived, however, as Bukele refused to meet with U.S. Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga during his trip to the region in April. Zúñiga arrived in San Salvador to engage in discussions regarding anti-corruption initiatives and efforts at stemming the root causes of migration to the United States. The Special Envoy had previously announced a USD $2 million contribution to the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES)—an anti-corruption body supported by the OAS. Bukele’s snub of Zúñiga was seen as a response to the Biden administration’s refusal to meet with the Salvadoran president during an unannounced trip to Washington, D.C. prior to the legislative elections. Evidently, Bukele was also upset by statements from Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, that urged the Salvadoran president to “demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.” Zúñiga instead met with Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill and recently removed Attorney General Raúl Melara.
It is difficult to understand what President Bukele’s long-term strategy might be, especially as it pertains to U.S.-Salvadoran relations. On one hand, Bukele is easily the most popular president in Central America, with approval ratings consistently above 80 percent. His supporters argue that the people elected Bukele and provided him with a legislative supermajority to move the status quo beyond the traditional ARENA-FMLN binary. However, his move to dismantle democratic institutions was bound to have negative repercussions due to the emphasis that the administration of President Joe Biden has placed on upholding democratic principles. Despite El Salvador’s increasing engagement with China, the U.S. remains the Central American country’s strongest economic and security partner. Further, remittances from the Salvadoran diaspora make up a quarter of the country’s GDP, representing a critical economic lifeline for the Central American nation.
It appears that Bukele may be playing multiple sides at once in order to improve his geopolitical standing. On the surface, Bukele is presenting himself as leader that will stand up to the U.S. and will refuse to change his country’s course due the perception of the administration of President Biden. Such posturing makes the Salvadoran president even more popular among his constituents, further emboldening the army of social media supporters that already stands at the ready to defend his every move. Bukele also—albeit on a small scale—has played up the China-U.S. rivalry angle, applauding Chinese leader Xi Jingping for donating 150,000 doses of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine and making little mention of U.S. support for his country’s fight against COVID-19.
Below the surface, however, Bukele has tried to build bridges with the Biden administration. The Bukele administration has spent USD $2.8 million on U.S. lobbyists, including a recent USD $1.2 million contract with Arnold & Porter—a lobbying firm that includes former acting Secretary of State and long-time State Department official Tom Shannon. Bukele is seeking to strengthen U.S.-Salvadoran relations, while simultaneously negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for over USD $1 billion in loans to support budget gaps through 2023. Responding to reports of his involvement with the Bukele administration, Shannon stated, “It behooves the U.S. and El Salvador to have strong and positive working relations.”
If Bukele continues his path of tearing down democratic institutions and consolidating power in El Salvador, the repercussions for his nation and the region could be massive. Unlike Mexico, Brazil, or even Venezuela, Bukele does not have the leverage to stand alone in the region without the United States. He will gain some sympathy from those harboring anti-U.S. sentiments, but will be unable to garner favor from the political left. Moreover, regional and extra-hemispheric actors like China and Russia are unlikely to make up the difference should the U.S. cut off aid or limit trade with El Salvador; additionally, discussions are ongoing as to whether or not the IMF will continue negotiating the USD $1 billion debt deal. El Salvador may also find itself diplomatically homeless if the OAS invokes the IADC, as it might not possess the political leverage that enabled Venezuela to avoid a vote against it.
For now, Bukele’s popularity might provide him with the strength to survive even if the U.S. places political and economic pressure on his administration, as any such sanctions are likely to impact the Salvadoran people more than his government. It is also possible that further isolation might only further entrench Bukele, as was the case for Ortega and Maduro. Even if conditions deteriorate to the point where his popularity falls, Bukele might still have the political muscle to escalate repression against an opposition that would be confronted with a cycle of sanctions, economic decline, and repression that will inevitably increase migration pressures, not to mention the possibility of a resurgence in gang violence.
Democracy in El Salvador is in grave jeopardy, and the consequences for the U.S. and the rest of Central America could not be higher. The success of the Biden administration’s policies in the Northern Triangle depend in large measure on the fate of democratic governance in El Salvador. Bukele’s drive to consolidate power represents another test of the international community’s ability to defend democratic principles; the Biden administration, working with regional partners and multilateral organizations, such as the OAS, might still have an opportunity to slow the authoritarian train moving through El Salvador. But, if what is past is prologue, then time is running out.
Orlando J. Pérez is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas. You can find him on Twitter at: @perez1oj
Randy Pestana is Assistant Director at the Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy. You can find him on Twitter at: @RandyPestana