Presidential election results in El Salvador, the tiny, Latin American nation may seem to be trivial to most Americans. This outlook, however, is far from the truth.
In 2019, El Salvador elected a 37 year old populist, iconoclast and political outsider in Nayib Bukele, which has proven to be a drastic step backward in the larger effort to secure peaceful democracies in Central America.
Bukele is from neither of the two major parties that emerged in El Salvador after the Salvadoran Civil War, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the more conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). These parties have largely monopolized the El Salvadoran political arena since the gruesome Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1980-1992. A Cold War era proxy war funded by both the US and the USSR, the Civil War’s main belligerents were the Salvadoran government and the FMLN. The catastrophic conflict led to massive population displacement, and killed upwards of 70,000 civilians.
The UN oversaw the post-war democratization effort of El Salvador, which created a robust democracy that included largely legitimate elections. The UN also oversaw the creation of the FMLN as a political party as opposed to the militant faction that it was during the Civil War. This recognition opened an avenue for representation that greatly reduced political violence. The end of the Cold War also resulted in far less international funding of the Civil War, resulting in increased pressure for the peace talks that ultimately ended the armed struggle.
Since their de facto grip on the Salvadoran political arena, however, the FMLN and ARENA have failed to meet the expectations of Salvadoran voters. Bukele’s growing popularity and overwhelming victory demonstrates the waning popularity of, and lack of faith in, both of El Salvador’s preeminent political parties.
Bukele started his career as a member of the left-wing FMLN. A college dropout, he burst onto the political stage in 2012 when he won the mayoral race of a small municipality called Nuevo Cuscatlan. Shortly afterward, in 2015, the people of San Salvador elected Bukele as their mayor. He started his party, “New Ideas,” in 2017 and has veered far to the right of his former FMLN peers.
Bukele’s election represents more than just an eschewing of the traditional political order of El Salvador, however. His rule includes traditional authoritarian methods, such as stacking the judiciary branch- Bukele waited mere hours before using his party’s new majority in the nation’s Legislative Assembly to appoint new sympathetic judges in El Salvador’s highest court and a more ideologically aligned attorney general.
Additionally, Bukele regularly acts in a manner consistent with a leader wishing to autocratize an existing democratic nation, according to standards set by researchers Levitsky and Ziblatt. Signs of this are that the leader does one or all of the following: “1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Bukele has managed to complete all items on this list in his short presidential tenure. For example, Bukele used his military and police force to threaten members of the Legislative Assembly who he suspected would not look kindly upon a loan Bukele wanted approved; upon his departure, he verbally threatened these legislators by telling them that they had “one week [to approve the loan].”
He is not just an overt, traditional autocratizer, however. Other more novel changes made by Bukele include a massive novel campaign that leverages social media to criticize opponents and erase the online resources that political opponents could utilize to question Bukele’s legitimacy.
In addition to this, Bukele also altered the emblems of local and national organizations within El Salvador to look more like his official logo: He made this change made overnight, completely independently of national authorities.
In addition to the emblem overhaul, official Salvadoran social media accounts receive direction on how to use and aesthetically alter their accounts from the president himself. Bukele’s authoritarianism, in particular his apparent desire to crack down on the current autonomous and free state of the internet, is largely reflective of his belief that the internet and digital spheres are responsible for his success in the last election. Naturally, he would want to defend the bastion that allowed for his rise to power.
Largely, he is not incorrect in his assessment of the significance of the internet to his campaign: his social media presence and laid back, millennial, internet savvy, and trend-following persona all helped distinguish him from the more traditional field of presidential candidates in the 2019 election. In spite of his obvious crackdowns on democratic checks and balances of power, Bukele continues to espouse democratic and populist sentiment on his social media platforms- notably, on May 1st, 2021, hours after the Legislative Assembly election results showed his party’s landslide victory, Bukele tweeted “The Salvadoran people, said, through their representatives: You’re fired!”
As exemplified by his seemingly intentionally Trump-like rhetoric and explicit desire to revamp a corrupt and stagnant political system, Bukele is a member of a new wave of right-wing populist leaders capitalizing on the public’s desire for radical change. Unfortunately, Bukele is doing so in a way that removes normal checks and balances on power and is jeopardizing the people’s right to have a say in who governs them.
Various media outlets draw comparisons between Bukele and “Latin American authoritarians” like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, leaders who, like Bukele, ran on ideas and rhetoric designed to capitalize on everyday citizens’ marked frustration with extant political systems.
Some researchers have dubbed Bukele’s newfound grip on the increasingly anti-democratic regime “millennial authoritarianism.” This appears to be an apt title, as this authoritarianism does include elements of savvy and connection to young people that traditional autocrats tend to lack. Bukele has garnered comparisons to Elon Musk as a result of their usage of memes and ability to successfully appear hip and in tune with issues facing younger generations.
One may argue that this political trend is unlikely to take root elsewhere in the world, and that El Salvador, as a tiny nation, has unique traits that allowed this “millenial authoritarianism” to take hold. This is a misinformed position: Bukele’s brand of authoritarianism may be new as of right now, but it poses a massive threat to democracy everywhere as it is likely to be more successful as more and more voters get their information about politics from the internet. Former President Donald Trump already weaponized Twitter to rally supporters to reject democratic norms, as demonstrated by the events of January 6th.
Bukele’s populism, autocratic nature, and usage of the internet to connect with otherwise disaffected or apolitical Salvadorans constitutes a new and dangerous ideological stance that is emblematic of the digital age. His populism can draw in moderate votes needed to win elections, while his authoritarianism allows him to consolidate his own power and erode democratic checks and balances.
This ideological gambit has worked very well for Bukele: he founded his party in 2017, and now has virtual control over his entire nation. It is only a matter of time until other aspiring autocrats attempt to mimic Bukele’s authoritarian recipe.
I enjoyed reading your post and I believe it accurately describes the current state of El Salvador’s politics. I agree and argue that Bukele’s unique governing style has contributed to democratic backsliding since the 2019 election. One of the main signs of backsliding is the packing/capturing of the courts. As you said, Bukele packed the highest court with sympathetic justices. It is also worth mentioning that he accompanied this move by sacking five other justices too. Bukele represents a highly palatable version of authoritarianism that shares similarities with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Chavez was able to maintain support with the lower classes through generous land grants. He also successfully galvanized the Venezuelan public against a common enemy in the United States.
Likewise, Bukele’s young and energetic demeanor serves as a perfect appeal to a discontent electorate. As you mentioned, Bukele has effectively used social media to inject energy into an exhausted system. Bukele has been able to follow Chavez’s model of support by rallying Salvadorians against a different common enemy: gangs. Starting in March, Bukele has led a crusade against gangs through a crackdown involving the Army and National Police. So far, over 50,000 people suspected of gang ties have been arrested. Although these arrests have sparked human rights concerns, the Salvadorian public has largely bought into this “us vs. them” narrative. Like other cases of backsliding, Bukele has been able to maintain international legitimacy by allowing a nominal opposition to operate. He has also staved off American objections by denouncing leaders such as Nicaragua’s Ortega and Venezuela’s Maduro as dictators. Through the capture and packing of the courts, demonizing a common enemy, and coming off as democratic, we can see that Bukele does indeed present a 21st-century form of authoritarianism.
The idea of “millennial authoritarianism” defines a new form of highly effective authoritarianism that is likely to be replicated internationally. Modern authoritarians are using creative strategies to undermine democratic institutions without drawing international or domestic attention to their actions, so there is reason to believe that the next generation of authoritarians will continue the trend started by Bukele in El Salvador.
Populist authoritarianism appealing to young people in the United States seems implausible given the fact that young voters overwhelmingly rejected Donald Trump in the 2020 election. However, an authoritarian would become more attractive to millennials if the anti-democratic rhetoric and actions were coming from someone who looked and sounded like Justin Trudeau or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Someone with savvy social media skills, a likable personality, and an inoffensive tone could easily cruise to electoral victory and begin the process of democratic backsliding in the mold of modern autocrats like Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Like Bukele, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Edgar Lungu of Zambia radically reshaped the judiciary of their respective nations in order to bolster their agendas with the support of seemingly independent judges. Bukele is also attempting to control the information being disseminated online, which connects to the modern authoritarian strategy of using innovative methods to influence elections rather than outright rigging them or falsifying the results.
No more are the days of military coups with tanks rolling up to presidential palaces to unseat elected officials. Modern authoritarians are using avenues like executive aggrandizement and strategic election manipulation to undermine democratic norms and expand their power and influence. Populism coupled with seemingly innocent social media strategies make “millennial authoritarianism” both dangerous and highly effective, and this is only the beginning.