The consecutive re-election of a head of state is illegal according to the constitutions of each of the five countries of Central America, but this hasn’t stopped the rise of authoritarianism in the region. El Salvador is the latest country to flout constitutional norms.
Late in the evening, following celebrations of the 201st anniversary of El Salvador’s independence from Spain, the country’s president Nayib Bukele announced he would be running for re-election in 2024.
“I’m announcing to the Salvadoran people that I’ve decided to run as a candidate for president of the republic,” Bukele said to a standing ovation and cheers in San Salvador on September 15. “Developed countries have re-elections. And thanks to the new configuration of the democratic institution of our country, now El Salvador will, too.”
This announcement doesn’t come as a surprise to analysts. Since taking office in June 2019, the young populist has increasingly taken steps to consolidate power. And his efforts echo similar moves to smooth the way to reelection by other Central American leaders.
“There is concern for the history of Central America itself, particularly what happened recently with Nicaragua and with Honduras,” Ricardo Castaneda, an economist and analyst with the Central American Fiscal Studies Institute, or ICEFI, tells The Progressive. “It is practically the same modus operandi in which the constitutional courts establish that there can be re-election despite the fact that the constitutions themselves establish that [there is no re-election].”
“This can also be seen as the entire state apparatus is organized to win elections, not to govern,” he adds.
Bukele’s announcement contradicts his statement in 2013 that he supported the constitution and the measures that prohibited consecutive re-election, due to concerns about threats to democracy in the region that has been plagued by authoritarian regimes.
As president since June 2019, Bukele has taken numerous authoritarian actions. In 2020, he illegally used armed soldiers to intimidate lawmakers to approve security spending. Around the same time, he forced a reorganization of the country’s Supreme Court, dismissing its five judges and then stacking the bench with his allies. Following this move, the court ruled in September 2021 that Bukele could run for re-election despite the prohibition in the country’s constitution.
After all of this, Bukele continues to enjoy high levels of public support in El Salvador.
“One of the reasons he has maintained his popularity is because of the drop in crime,” Hector Lindo Fuentes, an emeritus professor of History at Fordham University in New York and host of a Salvadoran history Youtube channel, tells the Progressive. “The control of the gangs is associated with ‘heavy hand’ policies of suspending constitutional guarantees in order to put in prison all those who are suspected of belonging to gangs, violating the constitutional rights of hundreds and hundreds of people.”
“This can be seen as, the entire state apparatus is organized to win elections, not to govern.”
Since March 2022, El Salvador has been under a State of Emergency that permits the military and police to combat gangs, leading to the arbitrary arrests of tens of thousands of young people, many of whom are from low-income areas. The declaration came after more than seventy killings in two days during that month. Over the last six months, Bukele’s administration has continued to approve extending the state of emergency.
Human rights observers have condemned this, pointing out the massive human rights violations that have occurred under the declaration. But these violations are part of the historic construction of authoritarianism in El Salvador.
Bukele is not the first Salvadoran president to seek re-election, though the ban has existed since the country’s 1886 constitution.
“There have always been efforts by presidents to perpetuate in the constitution the possibility of re-election,” Lindo Fuentes says. “It has been a recurring theme that the people have opposed.”
The last president to be re-elected was the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, more than seventy-five years ago. According to Lindo Fuentes, Hernández Martínez consolidated power in the 1930s, and once he controlled all branches of the state, revised the constitution to permit his re-election.
But this measure did not remain in the Salvadoran constitution for long. Hernández Martínez was forced from office following a military coup and a popular uprising in 1944. The subsequent government once again prohibited re-election in the country’s constitution.
But El Salvador is currently poised to welcome the new authoritarians, as research done by the Jesuit Central America University in San Salvador has shown. Salvadorans polled largely accept or desire authoritarian responses to the many problems that the country faces such as gang violence.
“Citizens in El Salvador have been saying for many years that they would not mind having an authoritarian regime as long as their problems are solved,” Castaneda says. “And yet this government, despite the fact that it has not solved many problems in concrete terms, generates the illusion that it can.”
The re-election of presidents has become more common in Central America during the past decade. Bukele is not the first head of state to challenge a constitutional precedent in the region.
Nicaragua, under the administration of Daniel Ortega, has provided a playbook for the new authoritarians across the region. In 2011 and 2014, Nicaragua carried out a series of constitutional reforms that removed term limits for the country’s head of state.
These reforms have permitted Ortega to maintain his hold on power since his re-election to the presidency in 2007. The changes also came at a time when the country saw a systematic concentration of power around Ortega, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader, and his wife Rosario Murillo, who was appointed vice president by Ortega in 2017.
Ortega has used brutal repression to put down protests against his regime and has silenced opposition through arresting leaders and candidates in the lead up to the 2021 election, which he easily won. As a result, many activists and politicians have been forced into exile or have faced criminal prosecution.
In 2017, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández of the far-right National party used a Supreme Court ruling—which permitted the head of state to consider re-election—to launch and win a re-election campaign. In doing so, he violated article 41 of the country’s constitution,which prohibits the re-election of a president or vice president.
The illegal re-election of Hernández was met with widespread protests across Honduras, leading to killings, criminalization, and mass migration. The National party lost the campaign in 2021 to leftist candidate Xiomara Castro. Hernández was subsequently extradited in February 2022 to the United States to face charges of conspiracy to traffic drugs.
Bukele has clearly drawn inspiration from the Ortega regime’s consolidation of power in Nicaragua, Lindo Fuentes says. But Bukele has accelerated the process, and the political opposition in El Salvador has been too weak to confront his authoritarian drive.
Given what’s happened in Nicaragua, Lido Fuentes adds, “That is the most worrying thing.”
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