Nayib Bukele: The irresistible appeal of the world’s ‘coolest dictator’

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El Salvador is the site of an interesting — and, for many liberals, worrisome — political project. Under President Nayib Bukele, who won re-election in a landslide over the weekend, the country has transitioned from what was a functioning multi-party democracy to a de facto one-party state. With the support of a parliamentary majority, Bukele installed the country’s constitutional court with loyalists. They later issued a ruling that allowed him to circumvent the prohibition against presidents holding office for more than one term.

Bukele is starting a second five-year term in office where his power will be extremely important, the country’s legislature a rubber stamp for the executive’s agenda and the opposition a weak shadow. And Salvadorans are ecstatic. Bukele commands some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the world and won Sunday’s presidential vote by a nearly 90 percent margin.

His surprising success depends on one critical issue: Since winning the presidency in 2019, Bukele has controlled a major crackdown on gangs and cartels that grew for years throughout El Salvador and through networks on throughout the area. His tough approach has lowered the country’s once world-leading homicide rates and brought a measure of safety to Salvadoran neighborhoods. It has also inspired politicians, especially on the right, across Latin America to try to replicate Bukele’s model.

Critics, however, point out that it is too heavy. For two years, the country’s legislature gave Bukele emergency powers to carry out his fight against crime. “Bukele’s government has used emergency powers to imprison more than 72,000 suspects – giving El Salvador the highest incarceration rate in the world,” my colleague Mary Beth Sheridan explained last year “They face massive trials of up to 900 defendants. Human rights groups say many were arrested arbitrarily. The government has recognized some mistakes, freeing around 7,000. “

How does Bukele’s success match up against gangs? First, abolish democracy.

Bukele, 42, has mocked his critics, including officials in the Biden administration, who said the 2021 court decision that paved the way for Bukele’s second term “undermines democracy. ” Calmly and irreverently, Bukele then rebranded his Twitter bio, now called X, as “the coolest dictator in the world.”

Most Salvadorans seemed indifferent, drawn instead to the populist promise inherent in Bukele’s pitch to break the failed status quo that presided over stagnation, corruption and poverty. “This is the first time in a country where there is only one party in a fully democratic system,” Bukele rejoiced before cheering the crowd on Sunday night, saying that “the destroy all challenges. “

That’s pretty much undeniable. “El Salvador’s traditional parties from the left and right that created the vacuum that Bukele first filled in 2019 are still in shambles,” the Associated Press reported. “Shifting in power for about three decades, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the far-left Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) were deeply discredited by their own corruption and inefficiency.”

The Salvadoran president called the election a referendum on his way of doing things in a society plagued by decades of violence. “Why are there so many eyes on a small (Latin) American country?” Bukele told his supporters. “They fear the power of example.”

Bukele’s bio on X no longer mentions being a dictator. Now, he simply identifies as a “philosopher king.”

‘World’s coolest dictator’ re-elected in El Salvador: What you should know

Bukele’s success in El Salvador reflects a set of politics that transcend his small Central American country. In developing and developed countries, democracies are facing historical tests. Opinion polls show increasing public disaffection from voters, especially young people, and growing disagreement with the ideals of liberal democracy itself.

“This growing rejection of the basic principles of democracy and human rights, and support for an authoritarian republic among people who feel that concepts like democracy and human rights and due process have failed them ,” Tyler Mattiace, Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the AP.

For this reason, Bukele has grown cause célèbre among the US right. “The liberal American press can not understand that the exercise of hard authority could make society better, and on purpose, freer and more liberal,” said the American Conservative, adding that Bukele “provides a successful alternative with the test of time rather than the liberal governance model.

But the road ahead for Bukele is far from smooth. His anti-gang measures are popular, but his country’s economic situation remains difficult – inflation is a growing problem, and El Salvador still has high levels of poverty and unemployment. Bukele’s appealing appeal to legalize bitcoin in El Salvador did not address deeper problems.

“A showman is no substitute for governing, and a second term will inevitably increase pressure on Bukele to address the state of the economy,” wrote Christine Wade, a political scientist focusing on Latin America at Washington College. . “With food insecurity on the rise and exports declining, Bukele must address the country’s socio-economic ills with policies that are more effective than his stalled Bitcoin campaign.”

“If prices continue to rise and the government cannot respond, Bukele’s five-year run of popularity could end in his second term,” Valeria Vásquez, senior analyst for Central America at consultancy Control Risks, told Americas Quarterly. “However, as the political opposition diminishes and the country’s checks and balances, it will be difficult for any major opposition to emerge.

In fact, there is one shocking fact in El Salvador: “This is the Bukele Model,” Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist who studied El Salvador’s groups, told Sheridan. “Concentrating all power in one man.”

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