El Salvador President Nayib Bukele Consolidates Power with Blazing Anti-democratic Reforms

  • President Bukele blazingly fires the Attorney General and all 5 high court justices
  • President Bukele holds a 92% approval rating, allowing for decisive action
  • To the dismay of the US and international organizations, President Bukele looks to further consolidate his power

Why is President Bukele’s heat level blazing?

Answer: President Bukele took decisive action to consolidate power by removing the Attorney General and all 5 Supreme Court justices with the support of his party in Congress.

In May, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele took decisive action against his political opponents, firing the Attorney General investigating his party for corruption and the Constitutional Court which opposed his arresting of people violating quarantine measures. This move, while the most aggressive yet, comes after a series of actions by President Bukele to consolidate power. In his first months in office, Bukele sent armed military troops into the National Assembly to pressure legislators to pass his anti-crime bill. Since these power plays, Bukele has made headlines for many controversial moves. In April of 2020, he ordered the controversial treatment of prisoners during a prison lockdown in order to cut off contact to outside gangs and show off his tough-on-crime stance. 

A year later, his party, Nuevas Ideas (NI), swept legislative elections across the country, granting him a supermajority in the National Assembly. Since these elections, President Bukele has used his capital to take many decisive actions against domestic civil society and opposition. In April, Bukele removed tax exemptions for newspaper printing machinery, greatly hindering the Salvadoran press critical of his reforms.

The actions in May to remove his last institutional opponents served as the final blow to El Salvador’s weak governmental institutions. Despite these moves, though, Bukele has maintained his popularity, consistently scoring a 90% approval rating through June 2021. This is largely due to the fact that El Salvador has seen a sharp decrease in homicide and gang violence, along with a successful vaccination campaign and COVID relief measures. 

With anti-democratic reforms and popular policy results, Nayib Bukele has successfully taken over the country’s already-weak institutions. The 84 Nuevas Ideas party representatives ironically present very few new ideas, instead deferring all matters of policy making to Bukele himself. With a loyal Constitutional Court, a puppet Attorney General, and a national cult of personality, Bukele can now pass policy at his own whim, setting himself up for success in maintaining power long-term.

Who is changing Bukele’s Heat Level?

Answer: A neutered Supreme Court, a compliant National Assembly, and a domestic public eager for Bukele’s fresh style and policy success.

As it stands now, President Bukele is an invincible figure in Salvadoran politics. Bukele is too popular with the Salvadoran people to attack, enabling him to easily deflect any international criticism levied against him. After Bukele’s actions in May, the US State Department criticized him for antidemocratic measures, to which he responded by criticizing US trustworthiness, harkening back to US claims of WMDs in Iraq. The Organization of American States (OAS) similarly called out his anti-democratic behavior, to which Bukele responded by pulling out of the OAS anti-impunity mission. 

While Bukele shrugs off international criticism, he takes an even firmer route with domestic opposition, crushing every opponent in sight. He revoked the press industry’s tax exemptions after their criticism of his storming the legislature in 2020. He fired the Attorney General who sought to investigate corruption in his party. He replaced all 5 Constitutional Court members who disagreed with the constitutionality of his lockdown policies. The lesson Bukele intends to send is quite simple, ‘get behind me or get out.’ 

At the heart of these blazingly confident moves lies Bukele’s source of power and legitimacy: his broad public support. His approval ratings, resting at 90%, look like figures coming out of a military dictatorship, not a democracy (which, for the moment, El Salvador remains). Primarily, the public supports Bukele because his controversial strategies have shown tangible results. For example, homicides in 2020 dropped by almost 50%, reaching its lowest rate in decades. Some observers attribute this to an informal pact between the government and gangs, but Bukele has rejected this claim with the public believing him.

Salvadorans also support the message Bukele exhibits in every action: A fresh hope for the country. At 39 years old, Bukele serves as one of the world’s youngest heads of government, and the youngest in Latin America. He brings a new style of government to El Salvador, focusing on technology and social media with an active Instagram and TikTok page.

At the UN General Assembly, he questioned why this couldn’t be held through a video call, labeled the function of the General Assembly as “outdated,” and took a selfie. While this may seem immature or inexperienced to those looking in from the outside, to those in El Salvador this represents a transition from the political establishment which failed them; an idea which gives Bukele free range to fundamentally change the institutions of El Salvador with little domestic backlash.

What is driving Bukele?

Answer: A desire to represent a new generation of Salvadorans ready to move past old institutions and embrace technology.

Many of President Bukele’s ideas and motivations come from his youthfulness. Born in 1981, he belongs to a new generation which reached maturity after the Salvadoran Civil War; a stark contrast to the current political establishment which fought in the war. Thus, Bukele sees himself as representing the generations born after the civil war and in a country where the median age falls at just 29, he is able to do just that.

To Bukele, the bipartisan system since 1984 benefited the corrupt upper class at the expense of the (his) new generation. He has called the peace deal which ended the civil war in 1992 apact between the corrupt, rejecting the two parties who have dominated the political landscape since 1984. Moreover, Bukele largely sees ideologies as a relic of the post-civil war system he aims to tear down; seeing his mandate as the 98% against the 2% rather than the FMLN party against the ARENA party.

Bukele flaunts this “new generation” persona wherever he goes. At the UN General Assembly, he started his speech with a selfie, then proceeded to degrade the UNGA as an outdated institution, especially in its 20th century style of meetings. While he has hindered domestic media, he has embraced social media as a method of communicating with the public.  He maintains active TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to constantly market himself to people of his generation.

After firing the Constitutional Court judges, he tweeted, FIRED,” an obvious callback to Donald Trump. These actions have caught on with the Salvadoran public. As such, Bukele sees his legitimacy coming from public support and regularly conducts polling to ensure that his message reaches the public. Throughout his 2 years in office, Bukele has achieved 90% approval, never dropping below 75%. 

President Bukele uses this “new generation” support to achieve his end goal in his country: consolidating power. Bukele’s large mandates in the 2020 and 2021 elections, and his campaigning for a new El Salvador, drive him to disregard the institutions which voters rejected to complete his policy goals. Bukele has justified all of his anti-democratic measures by framing these moves ascleaning the house of the old, corrupt officials. For Bukele, institutions serve as a barrier, not an asset, for his perceived progression of the country, still captured by the old political elite. 

Bukele uses these same arguments to legitimize himself on the international stage as well. He has moved to expand Bitcoin operations in what experts call an attention-grabbing stunt and a distraction from his anti-democratic movements. He tweets most of the resources on El Salvador’s new bitcoin operations in English, with promotional videos and renderings geared towards bitcoin enthusiasts abroad, not the Salvadoran public. To demonstrate, Bukele announced this policy in Miami, far away from his constituents. Figures such as Elon Musk, who share a similar mindset abroad, hold fairly high approval ratings; allowing one to assume Bukele aims to become a Latin American Elon Musk, building a cult following abroad to control his English-language news cycle.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The rise of young, syncretic, authoritarian-minded, technologically-savvy leaders is a growing phenomenon seen around the world. Moreover, young politicians like Bukele have the potential to influence older leaders like US President Biden on issues such as immigration and cryptocurrencies.

President Bukele comes at a time of upheaval in politics around the world. The elections of unconventional figures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro alongside the relative political success of Beppe Grillo, the founder of the syncretic 5-Star Movement, and Andrew Yang, the cryptocurrency-savvy Democratic contender for the US presidency, have signaled a shift in voter preferences for change untethered to traditional ideologies. Bukele’s rise to power serves as a lesson for his international counterparts. If they learn from his actions in office, you may see more Bukele-like populist figures popping up in your country, campaigning against status-quo institutions and for technological innovations.

Additionally, on the international stage, the actions of Bukele could force the Biden administration’s hand in their commitment to democratic values. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who has taken the lead in US-Latin American relations, came into office promising to promote democracy abroad as a key foreign policy goal but the crisis at the US southern border has placed immigration at the front of the national conversation.

VP Harris must now ask the controversial question: Do Bukele’s successes in reducing emigration justify his antidemocratic actions? If Harris sticks to her promises to promote democracy abroad and pulls aid, the border crisis may worsen, which would result in a resounding political disaster. If Harris carries through with the aid, constituents worried about human rights would perceive the move as a betrayal of her campaign promises. In May, VP Harris condemned the moves, but USAID has not yet stopped funds to El Salvador…

Lastly, Bukele’s actions of including Bitcoin as an accepted currency in El Salvador will have rippling effects in the world of cryptocurrencies. Following his announcement, Panama and Paraguay have taken up cryptocurrency-related bills, with political momentum building to make Latin America the next cryptocurrency market. For Latin Americans, this will mean more opportunities for access to financial markets and digital currencies.

This could also mean more instability, as investors use Bitcoin as a rapidly expanding and deflating bubble. Setting such an unstable currency as legal tender, however, could also lead to millions lost or gained in any given day for an average person. Nevertheless, widespread cryptocurrency access could incentivize investment and financial literacy in a continent where these tools for development are often lacking.