El Salvador: democracy in trouble
El Salvador’s 2021 legislative elections were a big win for President Nayib Bukele, previously at odds with an opposition-dominated Legislative Assembly. The supermajority he now enjoys gave him what he longed for: power without accountability. He has responded by changing the constitution in his favour, packing the courts, neutralising institutional controls and tightening restrictions on civil society and independent media. He did all this with broad public support, but his first unpopular move – introducing bitcoin as a second national currency – caused the first significant anti-government protests of his presidency. The question now is whether he can finish dismantling democratic institutions before his popularity runs out.
In the run-up to the February 2021 legislative election, respect for democracy appeared to be on the wane in El Salvador. Asked by the Latinobarómetro survey, 63 per cent of Salvadorans said they would be okay with a non-democratic government if it solved the country’s problems – the second-highest proportion in Latin America. Sixty-six per cent also agreed with the president controlling the media, ‘if need arises’ – the highest percentage in the region. Further, according to LAPOP’s Americas Barometer survey, between 2018 and 2020 the percentage of Salvadorans who would justify an executive coup had doubled.
Enter Nayib Bukele, catapulted to the presidency two years earlier with 53 per cent of the vote, who went into the election with high public support and used it to win a supermajority, then set about dismantling checks on his power.
In 2019, the then-37-year-old former businessman had exploited his image as a newcomer to win, although he did have a political history, and far from an unblemished one. Bukele was the former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, and a former member of the leftist party, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), from which he was expelled after an alleged incident of sexist violence against an employee, which he denies happened. In 2018 he joined the centre-right Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), an ideological leap that revealed his political pragmatism.
On the campaign trail in 2019 Bukele offered a promise that resonated with people fed up with systemic corruption and persistent inequality: ‘Money stretches out when no one steals’. He proposed to bring change that the two major mainstream parties – the FMLN and right-wing ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) – could not deliver. Between then, these two had dominated Salvadoran politics since the 1992 peace agreement put an end to a 12-year civil war.
Corruption: a campaign issue and a daily reality
Corruption has been the nail in the coffin of several recent Central American governments. While anti-corruption promises have helped candidates win elections, they have rarely led to any significant action, and corruption has continued to spread unchecked.
In the 2019 presidential election, Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, distancing himself from both major parties, which were widely viewed as aloof, unresponsive and, above all, deeply corrupt. Three former presidents – two from ARENA and one from the FMLN – had been accused of massive embezzlement of public funds.
While all candidates talked of tackling corruption, Bukele’s appeal resonated the most: he was the only one who openly supported the establishment of an internationally backed anti-corruption body, similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. The International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) was created in September 2019, three months after Bukele took office, through an agreement between the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Salvadoran government.
Since the beginning, however, Bukele’s administration was involved in corruption scandals, including over suspected irregular purchases made with emergency funds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society and independent media repeatedly denounced the president for violating his anti-corruption promises.
In less than two years, the CICIES submitted 12 notices to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the use of funds earmarked for dealing with the pandemic. From November 2020, these led to major investigations by the Attorney General’s Office.
After winning a legislative supermajority, President Bukele felt secure in taking the next step: he got rid of all those annoying checks and balances that might limit corruption and provide accountability. On 1 May, the first day of the new Legislative Assembly, the ruling party voted to dismiss the Attorney General, alongside the five Constitutional Court judges. The Attorney General was replaced with a former government advisor.
Just four days later, the ruling party passed a new law allowing all national health institutions to do direct procurement, bypassing normal procedures. The law was applied retroactively since the start of the pandemic. It seemed designed to foster corruption and prevent those involved being prosecuted.
Bukele continued to pressure the CICIES to investigate his political opponents while increasingly and publicly criticising it. He eventually forced its closure, confirmed by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in early June 2021: a presidential campaign promise he no longer saw the need to keep.
A populist’s disdain for checks and balances
After winning the presidency in 2019, Bukele only commanded a minority of legislative votes. The two established parties still dominated the single-chamber Assembly. As a minority president, Bukele felt he had his hands tied, reflecting the conception, unfortunately common among many of the region’s presidents, that having checked powers is the same as having no power at all.
In February 2020, less than a year after taking office, the president clashed with the Assembly over its refusal to approve a loan to fund his security policy. As tensions rose, he dramatically raised the stakes: on Friday 7 February, he demanded that the Assembly meet the coming Sunday to approve the funds, threating via Twitter that if legislators did not attend, he would use his constitutional powers to push the loan through.
Only a minority of legislators responded to his call, so he burst into the National Assembly surrounded by police and military officers, sat in the speaker’s chair and ordered the session to begin. After saying a prayer, he left to greet hundreds of his supporters, with whom this stunt played well, and called for a popular uprising. The opposition denounced this as a ‘self-coup’ attempt.
One year later, with the legislative election just weeks away, small anti-government protests were held under the banner ‘9 February Never Again’. In its annual report on El Salvador’s human rights situation, the Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law characterised the previous year as one of unrelenting confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government, with the president often ignoring or bypassing constitutional norms.
These events undoubtedly had an impact on the quality of democracy in El Salvador, which was downgraded from a ‘flawed democracy’ to a ‘hybrid regime’ in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Scores for the functioning of government and democratic political culture fell the most, reflecting the regression in legislative autonomy, checks and balances, transparency, accountability and access to public information; a steep decline in the score for political culture also reflected widespread public tolerance of this democratic regression when driven by the will of a popular leader.
Legislative election and Executive consolidation
The 2021 electoral campaign took place in a strained atmosphere. On 23 February, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression highlighted several cases of public vilification and harassment of journalists during the campaign. The Salvadoran Journalists’ Association (APES) reported 26 violations of media freedoms in the campaign period, on top of those connected to coverage of the pandemic, which mostly involved the public vilification and discrediting of those asking uncomfortable questions or making complaints.
On 28 February, a competitive and unquestionably clean election gave Bukele exactly what he wanted: total control of the Assembly and the ability to rule without the hindrance of an active opposition. His party, Nuevas Ideas, which did not exist when the previous legislative election was held, secured a supermajority. Regardless of how much the facts may have disproved it, Bukele’s promise to break with ‘politics as usual’ had once again worked for him.
Post-election power grab
As soon as the new Assembly was sworn in, on 1 May, the ruling party voted to dismiss and replace the five judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General. The move was denounced as an institutional rupture and sparked protests, including by labour unions, citizens’ groups, and lawyers and law students. Within a month, the new Assembly also approved the loan that had been refused by its predecessor.
In August, the government announced it would present a draft proposal of a constitutional change to extend presidential terms from five to six years and allow for re-election after a one-term wait. Paving the way, the new judges of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber quickly returned the favour to the president who had appointed them: in September they ruled that presidents are allowed to serve two consecutive terms. The Electoral Court fell into line, although the Salvadoran Constitution currently bans consecutive re-election. This triggered civil society condemnation and, again, street protest.
Journalists and civil society activists and organisations who sought greater government transparency and accountability were increasingly targeted. On 5 May, the Assembly changed the Print Law to eliminate a tax break on imported newsprint, pushing up the costs for independent media.
In March, APES expressed concerns about growing attacks on journalists, and particularly against women journalists, who are disproportionately targeted with harassment, often through messages of a personal and sexual nature. After reporting these restrictions, APES’ female president faced a fresh wave of online threats from government supporters and delegitimising attacks from the government.
In May, APES documented 113 acts of aggression against journalists in the first few months of the year, double the number in the same period in 2020. Perpetrated mostly by police officers and public officials, the most frequent types of aggression were the obstruction of journalistic work, stigmatisation and the restriction of access to information.
In June, the Minister of Security admitted that his office monitored the work of journalists ‘because freedom of expression has its limits’. Soon after, the government submitted a bill introducing regressive reforms to the Access to Public Information Law. Not surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index listed El Salvador as one of the three countries with the steepest decline in press freedoms.
Civil society organisations and activists came under similar attack, and for similar reasons. The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, IM-Defensoras, reported an increase in attacks against female activists on social media and messaging apps, including threats, cyberbullying and the theft and circulation of private information.
Colectiva Amorales, a feminist group whose protest performance against the Constitutional Chamber’s ruling went viral, was showered with online harassment by government supporters. Alianza Ciudadana, a civil society coalition advocating for the passing of a bill to give the CICIES more autonomy and investigation powers, was publicly smeared by public officials, starting with the president, and threatened with new legislation restricting the work of civil society.
Despite the risks faced by many human rights defenders, the Legislative Assembly’s Commission of Justice and Human Rights shelved a draft law on the protection of human rights defenders.
Weeks after dismissing the CICIES in June, Bukele submitted a bill to amend the Criminal Code so that corruption offences would no longer be subject to a statute of limitations and officials of previous governments could be prosecuted retroactively for up to 10 years after the end of their term in office. He was clearly going after his predecessors while dismantling the checks and balances that should hold his own administration accountable.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Eduardo Escobar is executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption.
When Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association.
After the legislative elections, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the Attorney General’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.
Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. Only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.
To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened.
We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Eduardo Escobar. Read the full interview here.
The president finally goes too far
The challenge, for civil society, independent media and others calling for the scrutiny of power, continued to lie in the president’s popularity, who time and again showed that a popular president with a legislative supermajority could do whatever he pleased and call it democracy.
But Bukele’s popularity is also a source of vulnerability, because it cannot last forever. Since no dissent is likely to be expressed through the institutional channels that he controls, he should expect any challenge to his power to come in the form of street protests. And indeed, major protests arose soon enough, in the second half of 2021.
The policy that triggered them came as a surprise. In June, a law was approved without any public debate adopting bitcoin as legal tender alongside the US dollar. The move brought the country to the international media’s headlines, where it rarely appears, while also unsettling many Salvadorans. According to survey data, more than 75 per cent of Salvadorans disapproved of the decision.
No consistent explanation was provided to support the decision. The argument that it would ease remittances was unconvincing: remittances already flow easily from Salvadorans abroad, because they are sent in US dollars, the global currency that is also used domestically in El Salvador. Many recipients of remittances don’t have internet access. Perhaps a clue came from the warnings of international financial institutions: bitcoin use could enable money laundering and other illicit financial activities.
Protests started small, in July, but by September, the numbers had swelled to become the largest anti-government protests since Bukele took office. Thousands protested on the bicentennial of independence, 15 September 2021, not only because they feared the cryptocurrency would bring instability and inflation, but also because they saw its imposition without debate as a worrying sign of authoritarianism. Bukele mocked these concerns by changing his Twitter profile description first to ‘dictator’, then to ‘the coolest dictator in the world’.
Although the protests were mostly peaceful, incidents of vandalism against bitcoin ATMs provided the government with just the excuse it needed to stigmatise them.
Another protest took place a couple of weeks later, this time by army veterans, former civil war combatants and labour unions, who marched toward the Assembly to protest against bitcoin and other government decisions, including a decree to force the retirement of judges with 30 years of service or over 60 years of age – a move that seemed designed to enable Bukele to further place supporters in key roles to secure impunity.
Bukele remains emboldened by support in the polls, still high despite the unpopularity of his bitcoin move. His mission seems clear: to keep dismantling any institutional mechanisms that could curb his power before his popularity runs out. Restrictions on independent journalism and civil society will likely increase, and the lost freedoms will initially be mourned only by a minority.
But eventually, a majority disappointed by the evidence that the president is not holding his end of the bargain on corruption will realise that the trade-off wasn’t worth it. The tide will then turn against Bukele. It always does.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Salvadoran government must ensure that independent media and civil society are able to work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics the government deems sensitive.
The international community must immediately condemn any regression in checks and balances, transparency and accountability – and not wait for a full breakdown of democracy to occur.
As populism rages, civil society must campaign collectively to defend and build respect for civic freedoms and democratic values.