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Nayib Bukele - Democratic Leader or Autocrat?

By Everton Prospere

Volume 1 Issue 8

June 8, 2021

Nayib Bukele - Democratic Leader or Autocrat?

Image provided by the government of El Salvador (Official Portrait of the President Nayib Bukele)

On June 1st, 2019, Nayib Bukele, 39, was sworn into office as the 46th President of El Salvador. As a president serving in a country where his government has faced much corruption, Bukele provided a beacon of light for the citizens. However, two years into his governance, the president has repeatedly faced scrutiny from politicians worldwide due to unconventional and questionable executive decisions. Although Bukele has sworn to fight corruption, has he as well become warped in this political cycle?

El Salvador’s history of corruption dates back several decades. Several militaristic regimes ruled the state from 1931-1979, causing much strife and civil unrest due to seven coups during this time frame. However, the most relevant political unrest occurred with the last coup, in 1979. According to Britannica, the removal of Carlos Humberto Romero, a general and the president of El Salvador at the time of the coup, was the spark of the brutal twelve-year civil war. This conflict claimed the lives of over 75,000 civilians, as per the Center for Justice and Accountability, and ultimately the war led to a stalemate. The two sides, the newly formed Salvadoran government (which went through several power changes during the war itself) and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN - left-wing in political ideology), agreed to the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. These peace accords resulted in several governmental changes, and dissolved FMLN into a political party. The rise of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista political party (ARENA - right in political ideology) also should be taken into account, as this party held much influence throughout this period. Into the 21st century, FMLN and ARENA were the two prominent political parties that handed the baton of power between each other as they contested political positions in the Salvadoran government.

Both of these political parties promoted presidents that have engaged in corruption and crimes. As per InSight Crimes, in 2016, Mauricio Funes (the 44th president, of FMLN), Antonio Saca (the 43rd president, of ARENA), and Francisco Flores Pérez (the 42nd president, of ARENA) all face monetary criminal charges; essentially, they have all robbed the Salvadoran people of millions in public funds. While Pérez passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage, Saca is already serving a prison sentence, while Funes has fled to Nicaragua where he was seeking, then was granted, political asylum. These three administrations (which totaled 15 years) show the staunch corruption in the Salvadoran government. However, Bukele has sought to change this cycle. As a millionaire himself (due to his private business), Bukele has no direct incentive for stealing public money. Originally serving under FMLN, Bukele won the mayoral election of the capital city, San Salvador. Under this administration, Bukele was expelled from FMLN, causing him to be politically homeless. Despite this, Bukele grasped this opportunity and formed his own political party, Nuevas Ideas (NI) in 2017. Although the president was unable to run under NI for the 2019 presidential elections, he did compete under NI’s ally, the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA). Under GANA, Bukele successfully won the 2019 presidential election, ousting the control FMLN and ARENA had since the end of the civil war in 1992. This great shift in power showed the will of the Salvadoran people to receive change; however, the change presented by President Bukele has been questionable.

Immediately in his first week of office, Bukele fired government officials associated with the former president, Sánchez Cerén. While this was an expected move, as the president was beginning to set up his government, he used the unconventional method of firing officials over Twitter. However, according to The Independent, who cited Luis Assardo, a journalist from Guatemala, this form of communication is a way to surpass the media. Therefore, while there was some criticism, Twitter was and continues to be Bukele’s main mode of communication, and it has proved effective for the president. In regard to a more serious topic, Bukele’s handling of gang members has also proved controversial. The president combines the strategy of an “iron fist” (tough crime policies to halt gang activity) with incentives to keep young Salvadorans away from gangs, as described by War on the Rocks. This media outlet notes that due to these policies, “homicides have halved,” showing their high rates of effectiveness. However, the scrutiny of Bukele’s work comes from the treatment of the gang members in prison. According to Human Rights Watch, the imprisoned gang members were stripped of clothing, packed tightly together, and unable to receive light from the outside. In addition, members from enemy gangs were jailed together, potentially increasing the amount of violence in prisons. All of these incidents, as per Human Rights Watch, were ordered by Bukele himself, who permitted deadly action by security forces, despite this being against Salvadoran and international law. Additional criticism of the 46th president’s administration stems from the handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Reuters news agency reports that Bukele mandated several orders to force the populace to comply with pandemic regulations, otherwise they may be arrested and their property confiscated. In direct counter to these regulations, the Supreme Court, at the time, declared these orders unconstitutional. However, the president ignored the court’s rulings and continued to enforce his governance style during the pandemic. Evidently, one might consider this an abuse of power and a flaw in the system of checks and balances for the Salvadoran government. Furthermore, Bukele has taken advantage of his position and power by storming the Salvadoran legislature with troops. CNN describes that the president attempted to pressure the legislators into signing a law that would fund the military and police force, allowing them to supposedly better control gang violence. While Bukele’s plan to curb gang violence did prove effective, invading the parliament with troops to pressure a bill showed an authoritarian governing style.

In face of all the political conflicts under Bukele’s administration, he has overall proved to have done the unthinkable. Nayib Bukele formed his own political party less than five years ago and took control of the presidency dominated by FMLN and ARENA, political parties drenched in corruption. He used his position to decrease El Salvador’s homicide rates, caused by extreme gang activity, to an all-time low by the end of 2020 (a little over a year into his presidency), an incredible feat for a state that was once considered to be the “murder capitol of the world”. The president also successfully curtailed the pandemic, with only 72,821 cases (as of May 28th, 2021) in a country with over six million people, as reported by Reuters’ Covid-19 tracker. His popularity also remains extraordinarily high, with a CID Gallup poll reporting that Bukele has an approval rating of 89% for his job as a whole and holds an approval rating of 98% for handling the pandemic.

Many Salvadorans support him, including my grandmother. She was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States, and she states that “He’s a great president that truly cares about the wellness of his people. Health, education, the economy, and security are the priorities in his government.” Evidently, this trend in popularity continues because the NI political party, which Bukele founded, has recently (approximately a month ago) gained a supermajority in the Salvadoran legislature, taking 56 out of the 84 total seats in the assembly. This new parliament grants Bukele the ability to pass laws and regulations freely. One of the first actions of this legislative assembly was to depose and replace the five magistrates on the Supreme Court and the attorney general that hindered the president’s ability to govern. This move by the assembly, which is permitted by the Salvadoran constitution, was harshly criticized by many media outlets and politicians because it removed the last check and balance on the president. However, the Salvadoran people appear generally unfazed by the removal of the judges, with President Bukele himself stating to critics in a reply to a tweet that “75% of the Salvadoran people voted in these free elections for the change we are seeing.”

Despite all the controversy seen in his administration, Bukele continues to challenge the cycle of corruption in the government in his unique way for the Salvadoran people who overwhelmingly support him.

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