Through the recent capture of an absolute legislative majority, the party of El Salvador’s charismatic President has set in motion a power grab to dismantle the democratic institution.
In recent months, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly has taken action that is in direct conflict with democratic rule and law and is set to propose an overhaul of the country’s constitution that would solidify absolute power in the hands of their populist leader. Democratic backsliding also known as autocratization and de-democratization, is a gradual decline in the quality of democracy through the state-led debilitation or elimination of the political institutions sustaining an existing democracy (Journal of Democracy 2016). If unchecked, democratic backsliding results in the state losing its democratic qualities, becoming an autocracy or authoritarian regime. What makes recent events in El Salvador alarming is legislative actions are supporting the breakdown of the democratic system of checks and balances and positioning the president for autocratic rule.
The democratic backsliding in El Salvador can be linked back to the 2019 presidential election when GANA candidate, Nayib Bukele, secured a victory that signified a break in the country’s two-party dominant system. Following the 2021 legislative midterm elections, under a new allied party, Nuevas Ideas, President Bukele became the first president in nearly three decades to win an absolute majority in the Assembly (AlJazeera 2021). Although elections in El Salvador are largely credible and free, President Bukele has been characterized as a populist leader and criticized for authoritarian behavior given his battles with journalists, use of army to enforce quarantine, and tough prison enforcement measures (Harrison 2021). Securing legislative majority has given President Bukele and his supporters a means to an end. In just six months, the pro-government legislature has swiftly undermined the country’s independent institutions, allowing President Bukele to concentrate political power in his hands.
With their two-thirds majority, members of the Nuevas Ideas have pursued a legislative agenda backed by President Bukele that shows a clear brake from democratic principles. The Assembly has shelved bills that would have partly decriminalized abortion and established legal gender recognition for transgender people. Furthermore, the Assembly has nearly eliminated checks on his power (Human Rights Watch 2021).
Perhaps the most evident symptoms of democratic backsliding at the hands of President Bukele and his supporters in the Assembly is the assault on judicial independence. Just hours after the pro-Bukele Assembly was seated, legislators ousted and replaced all the judges of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, as well as the Attorney General (Human Rights Watch 2021).
In late June, the Assembly appointed five new Supreme Court judges, without transparency or open deliberation and in violation of the process set out in the Constitution and the Assembly’s own internal rules (Human Rights Watch 2021). Each time the legislature changes, the law allows the newly constituted body to appoint 5 of the 15 Supreme Court judges—the new Assembly controlled by Bukele’s allies has appointed 10 (Human Rights Watch 2021).
In August, two bills passed setting a mandatory retirement age and that judges and prosecutors age 60 or above will immediately “cease their functions.” It is estimated that over 200 of the about 700 judges in the country may be ousted and replaced by judges appointed by the Supreme Court, which Bukele’s allies in the Assembly recently packed (Human Rights Watch 2021). The new legislation will apply to all judges and prosecutors, except those on the Supreme Court of Justice. Previously, the law did not set a mandatory retirement age for judges and said that they could retire after 35 years of service. These pieces of legislation were in direct violation with the country’s constitution and the United Nations’ Universal Charter of the Judge. Under the Charter, changes to the obligatory retirement age for judges “must not have a retroactive effect” (Human Rights Watch 2021). The drastic measures taken to control the judiciary and install loyalists into the country’s judicial system has given President Bukele a path to consolidating power. Not only has Bukele’s regime begun breaking down the domestic democratic institution but has turned away from the international liberal doctrine that upholds democratic government.
President Bukele’s success in consolidating power through the breakdown of democratic institutions is due to his ability to garner great support not only from the legislature, but also from Salvadorans. Since assuming office, he has maintained an approval rating above 75 percent (Segura 2021). In regards to how he has handled the COVID-19 Pandemic, 91 percent of Salvadorans approve of how he has been managing the crisis (Galdamez 2021). Winning the support of the electorate has been a virtue of what some have called “millennial authoritarianism” (Meléndez-Sánchez 2021). “He has used a distinctive political strategy that combines traditional populist appeals, classic authoritarian behavior, and a youthful and modern personal brand built primarily via social media” (Meléndez-Sánchez 2021). Self-described as the “coolest president in the world,” Bukele has capitalized on the millennial zeitgeist image, making a joke of the concerns for his autocratic tendencies by changing his Twitter bio to “Dictator of El Salvador” and twitter profile picture to Sacha Baron Cohen’s character from the film The Dictator (Avelar 2021). Bukele’s charisma alongside framing himself as an antidote to El Salvador’s corrupt and ineffective political establishment has given the country enough confidence to allow him to pursue his autocratic agenda.
In the coming months, the Assembly is set to discuss a government-sponsored overhaul of the constitution (Human Rights Watch 2021). There is reason to believe the legislature will now use the upcoming constitutional reform to consolidate Bukele’s power grab since assuming office he has been transparent about his mission to ensure that his opponents never return to power. With the overwhelming will of the people and the legislature conveniently at Bukele’s allegiance, it is evident El Salvador is on the brink of a regime transition.