“This people On Sept. 15, Nayib Bukele announced to cheering officials that he intended to seek re-election as president of El Salvador in 2024. Under the constitution, he warned of criticism from abroad. But, he continued, it would be “hypocritical” because re-election is allowed in “virtually all developed countries” while only the “Third World” is forbidden. His plan represents a big step toward another democratically elected dictatorship in Latin America.
His statement contained a colossal lie.In 35 developed countries International Monetary Fund, the name he read out, except for the United States and South Korea, all other countries have a parliamentary system. Their heads of government are not directly elected. Unlike Latin American presidents, these prime ministers are accountable to parliament and can step down at any time, as has happened recently in the UK, Sweden and Italy. Many scholars believe that Latin America would benefit from adopting parliamentary government. But there’s no sign of doing so in the area, and it’s not an issue that interests Mr Bukele.
Were Mr. Bukele’s intentions so destructive in unmasking this lie? After all, the U.S. mandates a maximum of two consecutive terms, as do Argentina and Brazil (although in those cases the term is four years, not five in El Salvador). Mr Bukele must be right that the Salvadorans are willing to keep him. For most of the time since a 1992 peace deal ended a civil war between the army and leftist guerrillas, the country has experienced slow economic growth, rising criminal violence and persistent corruption.
At just 41, Mr Bukele can be said to have made a decisive break with the past. His handling of the pandemic has been effective, if harsh, combining draconian lockdowns with generous handouts. He has drastically reduced the murder rate, first with a reported truce with gangs and then with a tough crackdown after talks broke down. He has jailed more than 50,000 so-called gang members under the state of emergency imposed in March. Relative to its population, El Salvador has more prisoners than any other country.
All this while he made nationalist populist rhetoric, attacking “oligarchies”, the two-party system he had in power before he took office, and especially “foreign powers”. “They’ve given us 200 years of recipes and they’ve all failed,” he said in a speech delivered on his nation’s Independence Day. “Now for the first time we’re using our own formula.”
At least this recipe works for him. His approval rating is reported to be 86 percent identifier– Gallup, pollster. His New Idea party won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in last year’s legislative elections. He used this to retire a third of the justices and appoint the Supreme Court to his liking. The constitution, which was reformed as part of the peace deal, states that a change of power is “essential”. But the court’s newly appointed Constitutional Chamber has formally ruled that the ban on re-election violates the people’s right to choose who they want. In theory, the ruling only applies to a second term. But it doesn’t take a shaman to foresee that same argument will apply in 2029.
So, for practical purposes, El Salvador joined Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela in abolishing term limits. To achieve this in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has taken pains to organize a new constitution and a referendum. Mr Buckler has followed the new fashion for compliant courts to do the job, as in Bolivia and Nicaragua. It is no coincidence that in these countries, most, if not all, of the checks and balances on the executive branch have disappeared.
The problem for Salvadorans is that if they get tired of Mr Buckler, it may be too late for them to get rid of him. His media bullying already means he has escaped scrutiny over his use of state money to speculate in cryptocurrencies. That has cost $57 million so far, according to credit-ratings agency Moody’s estimates. Some analysts believe that El Salvador is heading towards a debt default.
Countries that have removed term limits are among the poorest in Latin America. The countries that allowed re-election but only had shortfalls were either the wealthiest (Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay) or the fastest growing (Panama, Peru). Associated with the “third world” is perpetual re-election.
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Colombia’s new president courts Venezuela’s tyrant (September 15)
Questions surrounding shooting of Argentine vice president (September 8)
Central America Accelerates Transition to Authoritarianism (August 11)