President Nayib Bukele will focus in the coming months on a reelection campaign, despite the fact that a consecutive term is expressly prohibited by the Constitution of El Salvador. Last Thursday, El Salvador’s Congress granted the controversial and popular president leave for six months so that he could begin his race for the presidency. The request was approved by 67 of the 84 deputies in Congress.
Bukele’s reelection bid was given the green light in September 2021, when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court elaborated an interpretation of the text that allows a sitting president to participate in the elections if he is on leave from office at least six months before the vote. Honduran leader Juan Orlando Hernández and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega used similar moves to remain in power. The Salvadoran Supreme Court — whose members were handpicked by Bukele — made the decision even though at least five articles of the country’s Constitution ban consecutive terms.
Bukele has ignored the calls to respect the Constitution and launched a reelection campaign amid soaring approval ratings. Under the president’s controversial state of exception, gang violence has fallen to widespread approval. This is despite the multiple reports of human rights violations in prisons, arbitrary detentions and short-term forced disappearances.
The six-month leave granted to Bukele was the last requirement the president needed in order to begin campaigning for the February 4 elections. The president has the justice system and the polls on his side, and is also facing an opposition that is weighed down by corruption cases and has little popular support. “The infamous event that took place yesterday [on Thursday, November 30] constitute a triple constitutional fraud. The perpetrators have simulated formal compliance with constitutional norms while violating others that prohibit re-election, leaving presidential office and those that regulate the appointment and function of presidential appointees,” said the Salvadoran civil movement SUMAR in a statement.
“There is no president in El Salvador”
Bukele will be joined on the campaign trail by his vice president Félix Ulloa, who is also seeking re-election. According to the Constitution, Bukele had to present a shortlist of candidates to replace him during his six-month leave, but he only proposed one person: Claudia Juana Rodríguez de Guevara, his private secretary who overseees his financial activities.
“She is not a politician, she is the custodian of the president’s businesses,” Ricardo Vaquerano, one of the most prominent investigative journalists in El Salvador, told EL PAÍS. “Claudia Juana worked first in the accounting area, and then in the financial area, of Obermet, the Bukele family’s advertising company. Once Nayib launched her political career, she was in charge of finances for the mayor’s office of Nuevo Cuscatlán, where Nayib was first mayor in 2015. She then assumed the mayor’s office of San Salvador, the capital, where she became treasurer… and when Nayib became president, she became the financial director of the presidency.”
Vaquerano points out that Rodríguez Guevara was finance secretary of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party. “It is the president’s party and this is a party that has not been transparent about absolutely anything, despite the fact that the law mandates that the origin of financing be transparent,” the journalist added. The interim president of El Salvador holds multiple positions, including the presidency of the Board of Directors of the National Directorate of Municipal Works (DOM).
“The DOM is an institution that was created two years ago to direct to Rodríguez de Guevara all the money that was previously delivered to the municipalities from the general budget of the nation. This year, the DOM should have at least around $680 million to do its work, but it is also closed to public scrutiny,” said Vaquero, who argued that Bukele appointed Rodríguez de Guevara to that body as she is in charge of the president’s finances. The journalist points out that in 2020 the Attorney General’s Office received 12 reports from the Anti-Corruption Commission on the irregular use of more than $150 million of funds under the umbrella of the funds to address the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the criticism, the deputies approved the interim term of Rodríguez de Guevara, who is the first woman to occupy the presidency of El Salvador. “Claudia Juana Rodríguez de Guevara is elected as designated by the President of the Republic, for the current presidential period, which ends on May 31, 2024,” stated the approved decree.
Vaquerano argues that the appointment of Bukele’s secretary does not comply with the Constitution. “Every person who is going to act as president must go through Congress, and this lady did not even run for Congress. So there is no president in El Salvador at this moment,” he said.
Bukele maintains presidential immunity
Vaquerano also argues that Bukele has an “unfair” advantage in the election, as he will retain presidential immunity during the six-month leave. The journalist explains that Bukele controls the justice system and the prosecutor’s office, so it is unlikely that he will be punished if he slanders other presidential hopefuls.
“The state media will reproduce everything he says during the campaign. This is also a huge advantage for Nayib,” added Vaquero. “Bukele made it clear on a national network about three days ago that, although it is true that he will leave the presidency, he will ‘be watching them.’ Bukele is not leaving, he is pretending to leave, but he will continue to maintain control and remain close with key officials.”
Vaquerano adds that the State Intelligence Agency and police intelligence warned that the Bukele government has used the Israeli software Pegasus to spy on opponents, its own deputies, academics and critical journalists in El Salvador. “He can find out what his opponents are up to, what they are doing, what the political parties that are going to compete in 2024 are planning,” said the journalist. “If we add to that the fact that he has iron control over the prosecutor’s office, police and judicial body, he has everything he needs to intimidate them.”
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