After months of being accused as an authoritarian, President Nayib Bukele has now established a supermajority in legislative seats. This unprecedented power has allowed his party and a small allied party, GANA-New Ideas, to appoint a new attorney general and five supreme court justices. The rise of an outsider and consolidation of power should remind citizens of past populist leaders. However, President Bukele’s ability to reduce homicide rates and provide social services during Covid-19 has strengthened Salvadorians trust in him. As the public acknowledges social improvements, it can become difficult for domestic communities to identify democratic erosion.
During the week after the midterm elections, President Bukele retweeted improvements in both neighborhood security and educational opportunities. These social developments are situated alongside voter suppression tweets, “They want to take votes away from us. We will not allow it.” This juxtaposition sheds some light on how he has attacked political institutions while increasing public support for the New Ideas Party.
Despite the subtle authoritarian acts, President Bukele maintains the highest approval rating of any Salvadoran president. In tracing his rise to power, the international community will need to reexamine the institutional measures which allow a stealth authoritarian to gain power. Specifically, we need to reexamine the legal framework that allows President Bukele to weaponize institutions.
What is stealth authoritarianism?
Stealth authoritarianism requires an authoritarian leader to suppress political opposition through legal mechanisms (Varol, 1684). This suggests that formal institutions can be manipulated by a leader, as the public remains unaware of the violations. Some mechanisms utilized by these leaders include libel lawsuits, judicial review, and electoral disenfranchisement.
Depending on one’s definition of democracy, stealth authoritarianism may not register as a threat to political institutions. Following Schumpeter’s democratic method, the institutional arrangement that provides space for a competitive struggle should qualify as democracy (Schumpeter, 269). Thus, the minimalist approach does not require the process of participation and deliberation to achieve a democratic status.
The active engagement between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and New Ideas Party achieves this democratic threshold. In winning 70% of the vote, President Bukele can argue that the population has determined their preferred style of governance. Although the minimalist analysis examines the procedural components, it neglects to identify opportunities of democratic erosion in Salvador’s institutions.
When one focuses more on the qualities of representation within a democracy, we have begun to see ways in which the New Ideas Party undermines democratic values. According to the National Association of Journalists, reporters filed three times as many reports of threatening behavior during Bukele’s first year as president. As an act of intimidation, Bukele has called into question the credibility within these news outlets. The lack of legal safeguards allows the president to discredit the media when he deems it appropriate, which can leave more communities susceptible to disinformation.
Taking a step back from this case, media suppression is intensifying democratic erosion on a global scale. The increased consequences for news outlets in criticizing their governments has raised concerns for many communities across Latin America. Government officials attacking the press is common in Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Brazil. Increasingly, the reduced balance between public and confidential information can diminish trust between citizens and public officials. This treatment towards media officials demonstrates an area of weakness for global governance in containing authoritarian power. These implications should be examined on an international level to promote a standard in protecting access to accurate information.
In following President Bukele’s rise to power, it is crucial to consider the degree of intrusion in other institutions. Back in February of 2020, armed police and soldiers were ordered to occupy parliament to influence support for a $109 Million equipment loan. While unsuccessful in passing this package, the executive branch violated the separation of powers through intimidation. The conventional system of protecting institutional forbearance was disregarded, resulting in further breaking of democratic norms (Levitsky and ZiBlatt, 116).
Three days before the midterm elections, President Bukele tweeted for citizens to vote for New Ideas. Previous leaders followed Article 175 of the Electoral Code, by remaining silent before the parliamentary elections, but this electoral cycle is experiencing a different set of norms. Democratic norm violation can signal urgency for the international community to condemn these actions. Although El Salvador could be experiencing democratic backsliding, we must remain vigilant in finding solutions to protect and strengthen democratic institutions.
Risk Mitigation Techniques
Building off Robert Dahl’s maximalist approach, the international community should invest into finding solutions to protect his criteria of democratic rights. His utility of classification can clarify the level of democratic freedom within a country, further providing a framework for democratization and liberalization. As illustrated with President Bukele’s presence on social media, current branches of government can become threatened by authoritarian rhetoric through various platforms. The international community should encourage the region to develop a Code of Practice to curtail the spread of disinformation. As a policy, the press would be able to have a greater ability to cover stories without fear of political persecution.
Before El Salvador regresses into an authoritarian regime, it is important to take proactive measures to protect the democratic institutions. Twitter has outpaced the legal framework, which allows it to be yielded as an undemocratic mechanism. These midterm election results marked a pivotal moment for the trajectory of democracy in Central America. Now, the international community must act to establish stronger safeguards to prevent the strengthening of an authoritarian regime.