At a first glance, Nayib Bukele makes for an unlikely political leader. Appearing to the public sporting a backward-facing cap and a leather jacket while announcing his political successes on TikTok, his unconventional approach is an attempt to break from the political norm in El Salvador. In a pledge to voters since his ascendence to the presidency in 2019, he assured the public he would continue to get rid of government corruption and break down the two-party system that had existed in the country since 1992. His promises and style of governance have proven to be extremely popular in the country – and he has been rewarded handsomely by the electorate as a result.
Behind Bukele’s rockstar appearance and popularity, though, lies an authoritarian streak
With his approval ratings sky high in the 90s, his ‘Nuevas Ideas’ party has secured a total of 57 out of the 84 available seats in the Legislative Assembly, giving his government a supermajority with over two-thirds of the chamber being filled with the party’s representatives. Yet behind Bukele’s rockstar appearance and popularity lies an authoritarian streak. Bukele’s actions on polling day appear to have come from a page ripped out of Trump’s handbook, leading to the hashtag #MassiveVoteKillsFraud in an effort to panic voters to turnout for his party – despite there being no evidence of election fraud. His admiration of the military is also apparent in his use of intimidation tactics. From sending troops into Parliament in February 2020 to order the legislative body to approve his security package, to repeatedly ignoring the Supreme Court over Covid-19 quarantine regulations by sending troops onto the streets to enforce a strict lockdown – the latter earning disapproval from the UN Human Rights Commissioner – Bukele has not hesitated to use force in the past to get his way.
Now, with such a robust majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele and his party have the extensive powers to replace his most vocal opponents (including the Attorney General) and fill the Supreme Court with new judges. With the legislative and judiciary bodies loaded with supporters, Bukele could erode the checks-and-balances system currently in place through constitutional reform, possibly granting greater powers and control to the executive branch of government. “The people have given him a kind of blank cheque to kind of rebuild El Salvador in the way that he sees fit,” says David Holiday, the regional manager for Central America at the Open Society Foundation. This spells danger for the health of the promising young democracy in the heart of Central America.
For the sake of democracy, the establishment parties should do more to root out corruption and represent the masses effectively
Yet Bukele and his party remain extremely popular in the country because the people are hungry for change. His tough approach towards gang violence has led to a rapid drop of 60% in murder rates in the country, even though it is likely that this dramatic decline is also a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Nevertheless, his slick public image, along with his anti-establishment platform, has proved to inspire voters to ignore his autocratic tendencies in favour of a clear break from the practices of the previous generation of leaders in the country.
Bukele represents a growing desire for change across Latin America. The populist alternatives to the traditional political parties in elections signals a willingness amongst voters across the region to sacrifice some of their civil rights for the purpose of real change in the conduct of governance. The reappearance of a modern equivalent of caudillismo will remain as long as citizens stay poor while corruption continues to run rampant at the highest levels of government. For the sake of democracy, the establishment parties should do more to root out corruption and represent the masses effectively – otherwise, democracy in Latin America may continue to erode despite the strides made to strengthen democratic institutions earlier this century.