The scene in El Salvador’s legislature in February 2020 appeared to come straight out of a dictatorship: Armed Forces and National Civil Police troops armed with rifles and gear were ordered to stand and intimidate legislators in order to support President Nayib Bukele’s anti-crime loan. This is not an unexpected move from El Salvador’s president since he was elected in 2019. He threatens the state of democracy with his increasingly autocratic tendencies, signaling even the possibility of an autogolpe. His rise to power has been credited to his position as an outsider populist, receiving comparisons to leaders like Donald Trump in the United States and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Despite his subversion of the rules of democracy and signs of becoming an autocratic dictator, Bukele maintains popularity among citizens. This brings concerns about the extent to which he will be permitted to erode democracy in El Salvador as he continues to be supported widely.
One of his most recent and unsettling acts of democratic erosion has been his military occupation of El Salvador’s legislature to attempt to coerce support for his proposed anti-crime package loan to combat gangs. The loan in question provides armed forces in El Salvador with more police vehicles, surveillance equipment, uniforms and more as part of the multiphase Territorial Control Plan Bukele introduced soon after his inauguration to counter gangs and organized crime in the country. Bukele’s act of force and disregard of democracy has been compared to Fujimori’s own rise to power and successful autogolpe in Peru, raising concerns about his track as a populist leader to consolidate power in El Salvador. Bukele is set to overpower the other branches of government as the executive through his populist appeal, refusal to compromise with the opposition, and use of weaponized language. Most frighteningly, all these signs of democratic erosion reflect Fujimori’s own path to a successful overthrow of democratic values.
Focusing on the details of Fujimori’s rise to power and the many signs of his authoritarian tendencies provides a helpful lens to analyze Bukele’s own path in El Salvador. The first similarity between them is their victories as political outsiders. Peruvians were dissatisfied with the established parties and believed only someone outside of their system of politics could bring about real change – Fujimori was the answer . Bukele also rose in popularity among Salvadorans because of his break from El Salvador’s left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the two major parties since their civil war. Bukele was able to take citizens’ frustrations with established parties and send the message that he as a business owner and political outsider would be the change needed to confront corruption and crime.
However, being compared to populists like Trump and Fujimori is a cause for concern – both leaders disregarded democratic values and accelerated the path toward democratic backsliding in each of their countries. Populist outsiders also very often become autocrats, a title which Bukele has already gained through the Legislative Assembly that labelled his intimidation tactics as those belonging to a dictator. Bukele’s populist appeal is to be analyzed with caution because populist leaders tend to “enjoy substantial popular support” and are less likely to be held accountable to their abuses, especially during times of crisis . Bukele’s storming of the legislature with troops was an obvious sign of intimidation; but, because of the context of gangs and violence that backdropped his push for the anti-crime bill, he was able to maintain popularity and even call on supporters to also show out to pressure the Legislature. This becomes dangerous because as Bukele continues following an autocratic path, Salvadorans will support the antidemocratic measures they believe are necessary to keep them safe when Bukele appears to be their only viable choice for change. He will remain unchecked as he continues to exploit citizens’ fears of gangs to push his agenda while he becomes an autocrat and subverts democracy more seriously.
The next similarity between Fujimori and Bukele is their inability to compromise with the opposition. Fujimori lacked friends in Congress and failed to see eye to eye with them, resorting instead to name-calling as his attempts to pass legislation during his first months as president fell flat . Just like Fujimori, Bukele does not belong to the major parties of El Salvador which still control the Legislative Assembly. Lacking the necessary allies in government, Bukele instead attempted to intimidate the legislature by sending troops to try to force their hand. This intimidation tactic is a concerning sign of authoritarian behavior as it signals Bukele has a weak commitment to democracy by using the military to try to influence legislative decisions instead of respecting the system of different branches of power. He also encouraged supporters to follow in his steps and protest the legislature’s decision, another sign of his autocratic behavior as he encourages protest and violence against his opposition .
There is reasonable concern that as the opposing parties and Bukele continue to disagree, the president will again resort to antidemocratic means to ensure he is able to realize his preferred policies. Just as Fujimori decided to dissolve congress through an autogolpe instead of negotiating with them, Bukele appears to be heading in the same direction . He told his supporters when commenting on the legislature’s failure to pass his anti-crime bill that “‘If we wanted to press the button, we would press the button’ and remove lawmakers from the legislature,” explicitly stating his intent to overpower the legislative branch of the government. His words are not to be taken lightly – threatening to dissolve the legislature is an overt attack on democracy and, if he were to go through with it, would shift the struggling democracy to an autocracy. Unless Bukele can prove that he is willing to negotiate with his opposition like it is expected of a democratic leader, he will become an autocrat and subvert El Salvador’s democracy .
The last similar feature linking Fujimori and Bukele is their use of weaponized communication to delegitimize their opposition. Before Fujimori dissolved congress, he often criticized them by calling them “unproductive charlatans” among other names . Bukele is following in his footsteps by referring to the legislators as “scoundrels,” “drug traffickers,” and “pointless.” The use of ad hominem attacks is a rhetorical tool meant to undermine the legislators’ authority and is another sign of democratic erosion because it enables Bukele to avoid accountability and instead shift it to the people who have been attacked as inept . Bukele’s embrace of weaponized communication further illustrates his autocratic leanings as he is likely to continue using such rhetoric to deflect his frustrations at failing to pass his policies onto his opponents instead of admitting to his own inability to negotiate.
So far, Nayib Bukele’s presidency in El Salvador raises concerns about the direction Salvadoran democracy is heading. With so many similarities to Alberto Fujimori’s rule in Peru, there is a legitimate fear that El Salvador will repeat Peru’s history and carry out an autogolpe. Bukele must be checked, with special attention to his use of language, force, and exploitation of crises in the country in order to stall the democratic backsliding we see today. Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. 2018, 72-73.
 Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs, 2016, 3; How Democracies Die, 92-94.
 How Democracies Die, 73-74.
 Ibid, 23.
 Ibid, 75.
 Ibid, 77.
 Ibid, 74.
 Jennifer R. Mercieca, “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2019, 267, 273.