How has Salvadoran democracy shifted since the 2019 presidential election of Nayib Bukele, and what has been the role of polarization within this process? Bukele’s presidency has certainly had important implications for the quality of Salvadoran democracy, but how might we interpret this period within the larger picture of Salvadoran history and the construction of its current democratic system. The work of Meléndez-Sanchez (2021) can certainly aid in this interpretation. This work suggests that in the period following the Salvadoran civil war violence was combatted by political pacts which stabilized Salvadoran democracy for a time, but ultimately contributed to a disconnect between the FMLN and Arena parties and the Salvadoran people as grievances went unaddressed and perceptions of corruption grew. Taking advantage of this ambivalence Bukele employed populist tactics to attempt to unite the people of El Salvador against elites, presumably within the FMLN and Arena parties, and consolidate power and authority. This post will examine these claims, as well as the effects of Bukele’s rule on the institutions of Salvadoran democracy, and will suggest that Bukele has utilized populist strategies, which can include polarizing rhetoric, in order to consolidate his own power and undermine democratic institutions and norms in El Salvador.
So, what is populism, and how has Bukele utilized populist appeals to rise to and consolidate power? Populism is composed of varying elements, according to Müller’s (2016) conception, chief among them being polarizing rhetoric and Anti pluralist with a specific focus on “the people” as they are defined by those employing populist appeals. In the case of El Salvador, Bukele has been extremely successful in utilizing polarizing tactics, portraying elite as corrupt and against the will of “the people” creating an Us Vs. Them divide between the people and established parties. This is shown particularly by the figures presented by Freeman and Perelló (2021) in their article. This article exhibits how Bukele was able to capitalize upon the failings of the FMLN and Arena parties in addressing grievances and portray these parties as the perpetrators of elite corruption and evil from whom he, and his party, must deliver the Salvadoran people. This polarizing language has allowed for Bukele to consolidate power in the name of “the people”, as conceptualized by himself, and contribute to the erosion of Salvadoran democracy.
How, specifically, has the Bukele government degraded democratic institutions and quality in El Salvador, and what can these consequences teach us about the dangers of populism and its polarizing strategies? Freeman and Perelló (2021) make clear in their article that polarizing rhetoric, and broader populist appeals, by Bukele have allowed him and his party to dominate the legislature, leaving little incentivization for respect of democratic institutions and norms. This lack of respect can be seen through human rights abuses against journalists, as shown by Human Rights Watch (2021) , who might threaten Bukele’s carefully constructed polarizing narrative. Specifically, this report points to Bukele’s attacks on independent publications, such as El Faro attempting to publicly attack their credibility as well as theft and intimidation experienced by journalists critical of the administration. Additionally, Amnesty International (2020) notes Bukele’s attempts to undermine the judiciary in order to preserve and further consolidate his rule. More specifically, Bukele has undermined the judiciary by challenging their rulings and urging the public not to comply. All of this is to emphasize that the polarizing rhetoric and populist appeals employed by Bukele, as well as other populists in Latin America and beyond, have concrete consequences for the quality of democracy. Here the undermining of the legislative and judicial branches of government in El Salvador are highlighted as direct results of the rhetoric and appeals applied by Bukele. Additionally, the degradation of democracy according to Dahl’s (1971) conceptualization of polyarchy concerning citizen’s ability to signal and formulate preferences is shown through the administration’s treatment of journalists. It is clear that the use of polarizing tactics and populist appeals by the Bukele administration have concrete implications for the quality of democracy in El Salvador.
What have we learned about the case of democratic erosion in El Salvador following the 2019 election of Bukele? How are these lessons important to an understanding of larger trends of democratic erosion, and the tools which encourage erosion? It has been argued here that in seeking election and in running his administration Bukele has employed populist appeals utilizing polarizing rhetoric. This rhetoric has allowed Bukele to consolidate power, undermining democratic institutions and norms, under the guise of protecting the interests of “the people”. This consolidation has resulted in the erosion of legislative and judicial institutions meant to ensure horizontal accountability as well as democratic norms which protect civil society, particularly journalists. The impacts of populist appeals and polarizing strategies discussed here are not confined to the case of El Salvador, but this case certainly allows for a close examination of democratic backsliding through these channels.