No constitutional prohibition matters for the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. On Sunday, July 9, the controversial president announced that he will formalize his candidacy for re-election, despite the fact that the Constitution of his country prevents him from seeking a second term.
The president’s political party – Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) – has justified the need for Bukele to continue in office, claiming that he will maintain a political model that has managed to reduce levels of insecurity in the Central American country. However, critical voices warn that this move will allow Bukele and his party leadership to perpetuate themselves in power. Amid criticism for his authoritarian model, Bukele – who has been in office since 2019 – has defended himself, repeating “I am not a dictator.”
The Sunday proclamation – made alongside Vice President Félix Ulloa – is the culmination of a process that began in September of 2021. The magistrates of El Salvador’s Constitutional Court – who were appointed by Bukele and are loyal to the president – interpreted the basic law in a way that allowed them to establish consecutive re-election as viable, thus clearing the way for the popular president to repeat his term. That same year, the Electoral Tribunal reported that it accepted the resolution of the judges and gave the green light for Bukele and Ulloa to register as candidates.
The Salvadoran Constitution – in force since 1983 – establishes in Article 152 that “anyone who has held the Presidency of the Republic for more than six months, consecutive or not, during the immediately preceding period, or within the last six months prior to the presidential term” is prohibited for being re-elected to the post. That is to say, in no way are two successive mandates permissible… although the wording leaves the door open to alternate mandates.
Bukele enjoys enormous popularity among the population of his country, which is mainly due to the brutal offensive he launched more than a year ago against the gangs and criminal groups that spread terror in Salvadoran cities. To date, at least 68,000 people have been arrested. Official statistics show a very significant reduction in homicides and other crimes. Human rights organizations, however, have denounced an extreme use of force and systematic human rights violations in the jails, which include deaths from torture, beatings, strangulation, extreme overcrowding, violations of due process, lack of guarantees, mass detentions and death while in custody.
In addition to his controversial war against the gangs, Bukele has made progress in controlling the state apparatus. The president already consolidated his power back in 2021, with an unprecedented victory in the legislative elections. The unprecedented number of pro-Bukele deputies in the Legislative Assembly gave him a free hand to push his political agenda through.
Back in June, the president faced much criticism, when he opened the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador. Bukele – surrounded by thousands of fans who shouted his name – smiled during the opening ceremony and challenged journalists who criticized him to visit the country’s cities and verify the security that he has achieved. “I am not a dictator,” Bukele said to applause and cheers from an audience, who chanted that they wanted a “re-election.” The Games have been a very expensive endeavor, costing over $100 million
in an attempt to sell the world an image of a safe country that is open for business – a Central American Singapore, as Bukele himself has defined it.
Bukele has criticized the American news agency Associated Press for a chronicle about his appearance at the Games. AP quoted Alan McDougall – a sports historian at Canada’s University of Guelph – who made a comparison to the use of major sporting events by authoritarian governments to whitewash their image. “Successfully organizing an international event can give a regime confidence to act with impunity. [Sports are] a shortcut to [boosting] your popularity,” McDougall explained. The analyst, according to AP, made reference “to the use of athletics as a political tool in the 1930s… when Italy led by Mussolini hosted the World Cup and the Olympic Games were held in Nazi Germany.” Bukele reacted with mockery on Twitter – his favorite medium to communicate with the public. “AP is literally comparing me to Hitler and Mussolini. Reductio ad Hitlerum: we won the debate,” he wrote.
“…a Mussolini-run Italy hosted the World Cup and the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany.”@AP is literally comparing me to Hitler and Mussolini 😂— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) July 8, 2023
Reductio ad Hitlerum: We just won the debate 😎https://t.co/EXOyIXCo4r
Although Salvadorans celebrate the low crime rates and show adoration for their president, some of Bukele’s actions have raised alerts about an authoritarian turn in his government. El Salvador recently asked the Guatemalan International Book Fair – the largest in Central America – to remove a collection of short stories from the program. In Liver Substance – by Salvadoran writer Michelle Recinos – she brings together stories that criticize the “regime of exception” (or state of emergency) imposed by Bukele, along with human rights violations and forced disappearances.
The Salvadoran government is especially bothered by the story entitled Barbers on Strike – a moving and alarming narrative that explains how the Salvadoran Army took to the streets and made thousands of young men disappear in their war against the gangs. “The government of my country prohibited the presentation of my book. Shall we shut up? No. They’re not going to silence us,” Recinos wrote on Twitter, before she went ahead and presented her collection this past Saturday.
Actions like this put writers, journalists and intellectuals in El Salvador on alert. They fear that censorship will become commonplace in their country, while Nayib Bukele seeks to perpetuate himself in power.
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