President Nayib Bukele, using the control he has over the new Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, during the last three days deepened the authoritarian drift of his government.
The president is applying with extreme rigor, step by step, the manual on how to assassinate a democracy from power; method that unfortunately we have already seen in several countries both inside and outside the region.
The attacks – at the beginning of his mandate – on the previous Parliament, the disqualification of opposition parties, the harassment of journalists and independent media and the restrictions on freedom of expression, was followed in May this year by the dismissal of all the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General. This week Bukele advanced and scored two additional high-value wins to cement his authoritarian project.
The Legislative Assembly, which is under the absolute control of its New Ideas party (due to the resounding victory obtained in the legislative elections last February) adopted a law that requires the early retirement of 1/3 of the 690 magistrates in the country and , a ruling by the Constitutional Chamber, opened the doors for him to seek his immediate presidential re-election in 2024.
Bukele is also not original in relation to this last topic. The region is full of reforms aimed at changing the rules on reelection to allow the president a new presidential term.
While some were made via constitutional reform, others took place through judicial authorization. Among the latter – the modality that El Salvador now follows – the cases of Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega), Honduras (Juan Orlando Hernandez) and Bolivia (Evo Morales) stand out. All these judicial authorizations took place -as in this case- to allow the president on duty to seek and obtain his re-election.
The ruling of the Constitutional Chamber In their ruling, the members of the Constitutional Chamber ordered, yesterday, Friday, September 3, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal “to allow, in accordance with Article 152 ordinal 1 °, that a person who exercises the Presidency of the Republic and has not been President in the immediate previous period, participate in the electoral contest for a second time ”, which allows Bukele to seek his consecutive reelection in 2024.
The current Salvadoran Constitution has several padlocks (Articles 88, 152, 154 and 248) that guarantee the alternation in the exercise of power, prohibiting at the same time the consecutive reelection of whoever is currently serving as President of the Republic.
A rigorous reading of these norms shows that this ruling of the Constitutional Chamber (whose new magistrates were imposed by the ruling party after the attack perpetrated against the Judiciary on May 1), is incorrect. And, in addition, it contradicts the ruling of the previous Constitutional Chamber on the same issue, from 2014, which prohibited presidential re-election in the following 10 years after leaving office.
Authoritarian drift. The fragile Salvadoran democracy, which had already been suffering a constant democratic erosion prior to Bukele’s arrival, has accentuated its deterioration in the last two years.
As a result of all this, El Salvador is undergoing a process of serious democratic decline: it has ceased to be a low-quality democracy to become a hybrid regime with growing authoritarian features.
Among its main negative and dangerous characteristics are: a greater personalization and concentration of power in the hands of Bukele, a marked weakening of the division of powers and the rule of law, and a strong restriction of freedom of expression.
Comparative experience shows that when a president embarks on this path, democracy is in grave danger. It also teaches that once certain red lines are crossed, authoritarian tendencies accelerate and it becomes increasingly difficult to stop and reverse them.
There are the examples of Cuba and, more recently, those of Venezuela and Nicaragua to which Salvadorans must pay close attention. “Hard times” are coming for El Salvador.
Daniel Zovatto is International IDEA Regional Director. @ zovatto55