After the shocking, unconstitutional victory of Nayib Bukele, what next?
ETHE LORD OF THE SAVIOUR he responded to his re-election victory on February 4 with his usual understatement. Before official results were announced, Nayib Bukele claimed to have won at least 85% of the vote. He called this “the record in the entire democratic history of the world” in a speech from the presidential palace that evening.
Mr. Bukele has indeed won a landslide victory. With 31% of the votes tallied, he had 83%. His party, New Ideas, is set to capture almost all of the 60 seats in the slim national legislature, up from 56 of 84 in the old one.
Rule of law campaigners noted that it was unconstitutional for Mr. Bukele to run for a second consecutive term. But in 2021 he got the top court to rule that he could run again if he took a six-month leave of absence, which he did, at least on paper. He insists that voters should be able to decide whether they want him to remain in office. “Why abandon the path if it works?” he asked when he was announcing his run for a second term.
The handsome, jeans-clad director is popular, largely due to his crackdown on crime. Before he took office in 2019, Salvadoreans lived in fear of gangsters, who freely took money from local businesses and fought deadly turf wars with each other. Mr. Bukele first tried to negotiate with the groups and then turned to a mano dura (iron fist) approach. It allowed police to arrest anyone suspected of gang affiliation. More than 74,000 people – equivalent to more than 8% of the young male population – were locked up. Very few have yet received trials, although they may eventually receive “consolidation” ones, with hundreds of suspects being tried at the same time.
With so many gangsters behind bars or in hiding, once dangerous neighborhoods have become much safer. The national suicide rate has fallen from 51 per 100,000 in 2018 to three last year. Shops and restaurants that previously had to pay protection money – a huge drain on their livelihood – no longer have to. Ordinary people can walk the streets without fear. “We lived through 50 terrible years of wars and killings and everything has changed,” said 70-year-old Ana Rodríguez as she left a polling station in Izalco, an hour west of the capital San Salvador.
Mr. Bukele stopped a traditional campaign for PR stunts. He hosted the Miss Universe pageant, shook hands with Lionel Messi and presided over a powerful communications apparatus, including trolls who steamrolled critics and drowned out misinformation. favorable His public relations campaign has helped change his country’s international image of 6.3m, too. It is marketed as a surfers paradise riding the wave of the future. In 2021 El Salvador was the first country to make a legal offering of bitcoin. (This is as much about Salvadorean shopkeepers as his gang crack.)
Critics worry about Mr. Bukele’s lust for power and disdain for checks and balances. From the beginning he has given advantages to the police and the army to secure their loyalty. It also doubles the size of the army, from 20,000 to 40,000. In 2020 he marched troops into the legislature to intimidate lawmakers into approving money for his security plan. A year later his party won a supermajority in the assembly, and moved to increase its control over the courts. He dismissed the attorney general and the judges of the constitutional court, and retired a third of the country’s ordinary judges, allowing him to replace them with loyalists. His inner circle consists of his brothers.
Before the election, he changed the rules in favor of his own party and made it easier for Salvadoreans living abroad to vote. Ballots cast by the diaspora – 740,000 of the 6.2m registered voters – all go to San Salvador, which has the highest number of undecided seats.
What does he do with the second term? Félix Ulloa, Mr. Bukele’s vice president, says now that the administration has “cleaned the house” of crime, the focus will be on education, health and infrastructure. It boasts that for the first time El Salvador spends annually more than 5% of GDP on education and has distributed laptops and tablets to all students. This fits with an effort to turn the country into a technological hub, he says, pointing to the acceptance of bitcoin and laws encouraging investment by tech companies. It touches on future infrastructure projects such as airports, a train on the Pacific coast and a cable car in San Salvador.
Salvadoreans now see the economy as the country’s biggest problem, according to a January survey by the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. Some wonder how Mr Bukele will pay for all his plans, from mass prisons and bigger security forces to schools and infrastructure. JPMorgan, a bank, believes that better public safety has increased El Salvador’s annual capacity GDP growth rate from 2% to 3%, which would help. Mr. Bukele may secure a much-talked-about deal with the International Monetary Fund, whose officials have played down criticism of its involvement in bitcoin. But the economy and finances of El Salvador do not look good, says Lourdes Molina, an economist. Foreign direct investment was lower in the first six months of 2023 than in the same period in 2021. In 2022 the government changed a law to allow it to raid pension funds.
The government is hoping to attract more money from China, which paid for the magnificent national library which opened in November. And El Salvador is offering a “liberty visa” and a ten-year tax holiday to anyone who invests $1m of digital currency in the country. Mr Ulloa says the government will soon issue bitcoin bonds. Ms. Molina believes that increased use of bitcoin could turn El Salvador into a money-laundering paradise.
A state of emergency (ie, emergency) to fight crime was first announced in March 2022 and has since been renewed 22 times. Mr Bukele asked the voters to give him a super majority in the assembly so that he can continue to renew, which they did. This gives him a powerful tool to intimidate the remaining critics. It has already been used against union members and environmental activists, notes Ruth López of Cristosal, a human rights group. Only a few civil society organizations and journalists are still active, says Bertha Deleón, who was previously one of the president’s lawyers. Mr. Bukele mentions their existence as proof that El Salvador is a democracy. But in 2021 he tried to pass a bill to classify them as foreign agents, similar to those approved in Nicaragua and Russia. He has also announced a “crusade” against corruption.
Not all Salvadoreans support the influence of their strongman. The families of those arrested are angry. In a poor rural area, a couple in their 50s are crying as they tell how three of their four sons, aged 15, 17 and 25, and a grandson, aged 15, were taken in November. Their children were not members of the group, they say; one worked for the government until he got sick and the other two were at school all day. “We are now afraid of the police and the army,” they say UCA poll, 63% of respondents said they were “more careful” with whom they share their political views. Diego, a 19-year-old soldier, says he respects the president but is worried: “It’s not good that one party has all the power.”
Mr. Bukele’s lack of transparency and accountability, critics have accused. Before he was sacked, a former lawyer was investigating members of the government for misdirecting money during the pandemic, among other things. If a regime can lock people up indefinitely without charge, officials may one day pay to do so, some fear.
At the same time, a third term for Mr. Bukele is already being discussed. Mr. Bukele has said that the law “currently” does not allow one. But he said that every generation has the right to decide its own laws. ■