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By Alvaro Piaggio 

In 2019, Nayib Bukele shook El Salvador’s political scene, becoming the first democratically-elected president in decades who was not a member of either of the country’s two major political parties — the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Although he began his political career with the FMLN, Bukele publicly severed his relationship with the party while he was mayor of San Salvador. In 2017, he was expelled from the party for “violating the principles and statutes of the party.”

Unable to register his new political party, Nuevas Ideas, in time for the 2019 election, Bukele decided to run for president with the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), a small conservative party. Despite this, he obtained 53.4% of the vote, a large enough margin to avoid a run-off election. While in office, his popularity continued to grow — many Salvadorans felt his bold actions to address corruption and violence were a breath of fresh air.

El Salvador has enjoyed free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power for nearly three decades. Nonetheless, the country continues to see widespread corruption, high levels of income inequality, and violence fueled by gangs such as the infamous MS-13 and Barrio 18. Bukele has denounced both the ARENA and FMLN for their failure to address these issues. Given his savvy use of social media and an electorate weary of the traditional political parties, Bukele has risen to the top of Salvadoran politics.

Regrettably, rash populist rhetoric and dangerous attempts to erode the country’s institutions have tarnished Bukele’s democratic rise to power. The first significant sign of his willingness to ignore democratic norms came shortly after being elected in 2019. Lacking control of the Legislative Assembly and frustrated with an opposition that refused to approve a multi-million dollar loan for his “Territorial Control” Plan, Bukele called on his supporters, the police, and the army to circle the legislature. Soon, Bukele marched into the assembly’s building, flanked by armed forces, in an apparent attempt to intimidate legislators into signing his law.

In 2021, things only worsened when Bukele led Nuevas Ideas to a resounding victory in the legislative election. After winning 56 of the 84 seats in the Assembly, his party was the first to control both the presidency and a legislative majority since the restoration of democracy in 1992. After the new Assembly was sworn in, his bloc acted quickly with a series of measures that deeply undermined the independence of the judiciary.

On May 1, 2022, the Bukele-controlled Assembly removed the Attorney General and all five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, replacing them within hours. In June, five new magistrates were appointed to the Supreme Court, violating rules that limit the number of appointees to the fifteen-member body. In August, two new laws were passed that granted the Attorney General — appointed in May and perceived to be a political ally of Bukele — the power to dismiss low- and mid-level judges and prosecutors who are more than 60 years old or have served for more than 30 years. In practice, this allowed the administration to dismiss and transfer dozens of people, effectively gutting investigations into both current government corruption and gross human rights violations during the 1980s and the country’s civil war.

Attacks on the judiciary’s independence also allowed the Bukele-aligned Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice to, on September 4, effectively end the ban on presidential reelection. Moreover, the Court has allowed the president to seek his immediate reelection, and most recently, Bukele and his Assembly are considering a significant constitutional reform. This reform would authorize a one-party state, codify the nationalization of pension funds, and require all lawyers and public prosecutors to be approved and affiliated with the national government. 

None of these measures will sound foreign to Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and other Latin Americans whose democratic institutions have been assaulted by would-be authoritarians. The destruction of checks and balances, accompanied by the total rewriting of constitutional rules, is a universal tactic employed by strongmen who seek to undermine democracy and remain in power. Lifting bans on reelections has been an inflection point in the democratic decline of several countries in the region — from Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1996 to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2009 to Daniel Ortega in 2010. Bukele is following the same playbook closely, topping it all with a unique and crass cult of personality.

Bukele also has a contentious relationship with the press — and what first began as simple bravado has turned into a troubling pattern. He has accused reporters from the online newspaper El Faro and Colombia’s InSightCrime of “money laundering” on multiple occasions, and news recently emerged that he has used the infamous surveillance tool Pegasus to spy on El Faro journalists since early 2020.

Bukele’s tough-on-crime approach, while popular, has also been mired in controversy, lack of transparency, and civil rights abuses. Although murder rates plummeted during the first three years of his government, an independent investigation by El Faro concluded that Bukele’s government secretly cut a deal with MS-13 and Barrio 18 — a deal that seemingly went awry earlier this year with a severe spike in homicides. In response, the Assembly gave the president emergency powers and suspended many basic civil liberties. This has led to nearly 50,000 arrests across the country since the state of emergency went into effect in March. In May, Reuters wrote that arrests had skyrocketed as police officers attempted to reach high detention quotas; and several human rights groups also reported on dozens of arbitrary arrests and other serious violations of due process.

Bukele’s rise to power was democratic and legitimate. He addressed the grievances of millions of Salvadorans tired of corruption, anemic economic growth, and gang violence. However, he has manipulated the electorate’s trust to undermine the judiciary and pave the way for an uncontested extension of rule. History — particularly Latin American history — is littered with strongmen like Bukele who claim they can solve a country’s problems, only to foster more misery and repression. Authoritarian rule cannot create less corruption or violence — on the contrary, modern authoritarians require loyalty from subordinates at the expense of honesty or any policy concerns.

The international community must stand up to Bukele — starting with the Organization of American States (OAS), which should consider enforcing the democracy clause of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The OAS and the wider international community must pressure Bukele to end his assault on the judiciary and his attempts to alter election rules. He must stop his attacks on the free press and his egregious violations of due process and civil liberties.