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Weekly Report - 06 May 2021 (WR-21-18)

Bukele steers El Salvador towards dictatorship

If there were any remaining doubt about President Nayib Bukele’s commitment to democratic norms in El Salvador they were removed on 1 May. The very first move legislators from his personalist political party Nuevas Ideas (NI) made upon taking their seats on 1 May was to use their commanding two-thirds majority to summarily dismiss the whole of the constitutional chamber of the supreme court (CSJ) and the attorney general that had held his government to task. Bukele batted away the widespread censure from the international community that ensued. He insisted that he was merely doing the bidding of ‘the people’ who overwhelmingly voted for NI. Bukele now reigns supreme, with no checks on his power.

Even by the standards of a leader who deemed it appropriate to march into the legislative assembly at the head of the military to intimidate deputies into doing his will in February last year, the speed of the ruthless dismissal of the five magistrates sitting on the CSJ’s constitutional chamber and the attorney general, Raúl Melara, was stunning. President Bukele’s NI became the first party in El Salvador’s democratic history to win a two-thirds majority in the 84-seat legislative assembly in February’s elections and when the elected deputies took their seats on 1 May, he became the most powerful head of state since the civil war. The size of the majority empowered NI to make appointments to the judiciary and state institutions without needing to horse trade with other parties. Rather than wait for their terms to expire, however, NI moved on day one.

“And the Salvadoran people, through their representatives, said FIRED,” Bukele tweeted. Three of the five magistrates and Melara tweeted their resignations under duress. Handpicked new judges and Melara’s successor, Rodolfo Delgado, took up their posts immediately. Bukele released a video maintaining that El Salvador was “constructing a new history” as “a truly free and sovereign” country. He said that if he were a dictator he would have shot them all. Bukele described the changes as “a tipping point between the old and the new”. They could more accurately be described as a tipping point between democracy and dictatorship.

The CSJ’s constitutional chamber is not a byword for politicisation or venality in El Salvador. The fact that magistrates sitting on it were criticised by both of the main parties in the pre-Bukele duopoly of the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Arena) and the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) bears testament to the independence and impartiality of the chamber’s rulings. It clashed with Bukele by issuing rulings to countermand some of his excesses, especially his use of emergency decrees to limit constitutional rights during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Legislators justified their action on these rulings. The magistrates denounced “a reprisal for rulings which at various points controlled the executive’s actions”.

Melara, meanwhile, was frequently undermined by Bukele, most recently with his obfuscation in the wake of the murder of two FMLN political activists during the electoral campaign [WR-21-05]. Melara had also opened investigations into allegations of corruption in public procurement contracts related to the pandemic. These will now go nowhere. Indeed, on 5 May the NI-dominated assembly approved a law guaranteeing immunity from prosecution for all government officials with regard to the pandemic, such as contracts for medical supplies.

An avalanche of international criticism followed the dismissals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, for instance, said the move “seriously undermines democracy and the rule of law” and marked “an alarming tendency towards the concentration of powers” in El Salvador. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, phoned up Bukele to express his “grave concern…noting that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance”.

Bukele was unchastened. He put out a barrage of 310 defiant tweets and retweets in the space of 24 hours. “With all due respect: We are cleaning house…and this doesn’t concern you,” he wrote. “It took us 30 years to free ourselves from the regime”. But while democracy might have been imperfect in El Salvador, and there was certainly politicisation of some institutions, there was alternation of power between the FMLN and Arena, and functioning checks and balances. Those constitutional counterweights are now gone.

At home, the FMLN, a shadow of its former self with just four seats in the new legislature, described the removal of the judges as “an unprecedented blow against democracy [and] one of the most serious assaults on the constitutional system that engulfs the country in an alarming political and judicial crisis that threatens more abuse, violations, excesses, impunity, and political persecution”. The national business association Anep criticised “a blow to the system of separation of powers that will have serious consequences for our country” and “a self-coup against the judiciary”. Bukele snapped back on Twitter: “Those days when the Anep ruled…they aren’t coming back”.

Economic repercussions?

Bukele clearly calculates that he can ride out the international criticism, with his
sky-high approval rating owing to his deft exploitation of public disillusionment with political elites in Arena and the FMLN tarnished by corruption. But Anep made a valid point that “democratic crisis could cause an economic crisis”, a comment that was echoed in a statement by 20 local civil society organisations, who denounced “fraud against the constitution”. José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the US NGO Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, warned: “We will make every effort for this assault on democracy to affect [Bukele’s] relationship with the US government, the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Bank.” The Bukele administration is banking on a US$1.3bn loan from the International Monetary Fund to cover expenditure and debt servicing for 2021-23.

Perhaps the most intriguing exchange of views was between Bukele and Venezuela’s opposition. Bukele responded to criticism by arguing that if Venezuela’s opposition were to win power “it too would clear out the judiciary and the attorney general’s office”. But this is a specious parallel. Before the advent of Bukele, El Salvador was not a repressive, and essentially one-party, state under the control of the executive branch. A different parallel to Venezuela could be more instructive. Exerting full control over the judicial branch allowed the government of Nicolás Maduro not just to engage in political persecution of opponents but also to neuter the challenge posed by the opposition when it finally gained control of the legislative assembly in 2015.

Press freedom

The government-controlled legislature has also taken aim at the independent press. It voted to remove tax exemptions enjoyed by the print media, citing “fiscal justice” rather than “revenge”. Government officials recently launched scathing criticism of the national daily La Prensa Gráfica, after it published a piece on the slow vaccine rollout. The government has also been fiercely critical of the online investigative publication El Faro, which has won international acclaim for its reporting, holding successive governments of all hues to account. In an editorial entitled ‘Thus dies the Republic’ published on 5 May, El Faro argued that “El Salvador’s citizens have lost their constitutional guarantees”. It also slammed President Bukele’s justification for the action: “Bukele’s words are the fruit of ignorance or manipulation. Or both. Democracy is not going to vote. Democracy is a system of checks and balances, clear rules, and a rule of law guaranteed by institutions that are above one single person.”