On February 4, as El Salvador held presidential elections, present president Nayib Bukele confirmed up at a polling place accompanied by audio system blasting “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.
The track alternative was deliberate — Bukele was as soon as once more trolling critics who declare he’s steering the nation towards autocracy. For some time, his Twitter bio learn “The World’s Coolest Dictator.”
Since being elected president in 2019, Bukele has made international headlines for what some have described as a millennial persona, eschewing ties and fits in favor of denims and sun shades and taking a selfie throughout his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He has famously offered El Salvador as a cryptocurrency paradise, making it the primary nation on the earth to undertake Bitcoin as authorized tender.
But Bukele’s detractors say he has used the presidency to push El Salvador away from democracy, packing the nation’s judiciary with judges sympathetic to his insurance policies and reshaping electoral regulation to make sure his political occasion holds a majority within the legislature.
During his almost 5 years in workplace, Bukele has declared an ongoing state of emergency, utilizing the specter of gang violence to curtail civil liberties. He very publicly stormed the legislature with the help of the navy to demand funding for his coverage priorities. And the truth that Bukele ran for reelection in any respect was unprecedented and doubtless unlawful: El Salvador’s structure explicitly bars reelection to consecutive presidential phrases. Still, he has claimed victory within the vote and few are disputing that he received the presidency, although 60 seats in Congress are being disputed by El Salvador’s electoral physique.
Silvia Viñas is the co-host of a brand new podcast about Bukele, Bukele: El señor de Los Sueños. She says that when you outline a democracy solely because the individuals having the ability to vote, El Salvador has that.
However, democracy is about rather more. If Bukele controls every part with out checks to his authority, Silvia asks, is the nation’s authorities nonetheless a democracy? What follows is an tailored transcript of her dialog with Sean Rameswaram, co-host of Vox’s Today, Explained podcast, edited for size and readability.
[Bukele is] the youngest president within the historical past of El Salvador when he’s elected in 2019. A millennial president. What’s he like when he will get into workplace? Is all of it avocado toast and Instagram or what?
He sells this picture of the younger, hip millennial president who’s totally different from the opposite presidents in Latin America. He was 37 — as you say he appeared very totally different from different presidents. He didn’t put on fits. He wore leather-based jackets, he used social media to conduct state enterprise, to fireside authorities staff or to ask them to maintain a problem. When he went to the UN, he took a selfie.
When he took workplace, the Congress did their job of being a counterweight and performing checks and balances, as they need to in a democracy, as a result of he doesn’t have a majority there. And so he began a battle with lawmakers as a result of he needed them to assist finance his plan to scale back violent killings and to battle the gangs.
So Congress requested for extra particulars about how he’s going to spend the cash. And Bukele obtained uninterested in legislators delaying every part, so he referred to as for a rare session for Sunday, February ninth, 2020.
So some legislators go, however they don’t have sufficient individuals to truly perform a session to vote on the mortgage. Meanwhile, Bukele marketed on social media for individuals to go march to Congress. They use authorities buses pushed by navy personnel to carry individuals to this gathering. And inside, whereas the legislators are ready for the session to start out, armed navy personnel present up contained in the constructing.
Legislators feared that this was a coup, with navy coming into the Congress.
It feels like January sixth if it labored.
Yes, and so Bukele requested the gang, will you let me enter Congress? And in fact, they are saying “Yes!”
So he entered the room the place the legislators are ready, with the navy already inside. He sat within the chair the place the president of the Congress would sit throughout a session. And he stated, “Let’s say a prayer.”
He places his arms on his head and he prayed in silence. And then he simply obtained up and left. It was like a present of drive, exhibiting what he’s able to doing. It was a concern tactic, exhibiting that he may instigate a coup.
Does he discover a strategy to consolidate energy after that?
Yeah, he consolidates energy the next yr when his occasion and allied events win a majority in Congress. So inside a number of months after successful that election, he was in a position to achieve legislative energy after which judicial energy. After that it’s like, okay, he can do something he needs. He controls every part.
It’s my understanding that one of many causes individuals again Bukele is as a result of he’s taking a stand in opposition to the gangs and gang violence in El Salvador. How does he, as president, oppose the gangs?
You may keep in mind the pictures of prisoners in Salvadoran jails with shaved heads, with out a shirt, with their arms behind their again, all sitting very shut to 1 one other in traces? Those pictures went all over the world.
That was a response from President Bukele, as a result of in April 2020 there was a surge in violence and 76 homicides in 4 days. His response was to crack down on gang members in jails, and he approved safety officers to make use of deadly drive on inmates and suspects. He combined members of rival gangs in the identical cells. He was making an attempt to indicate that he was treating the gang members terribly as a result of they’ve executed a lot harm to our society. But then one other large wave of violence occurs, and there are 87 murders in three days.
So Bukele requested that Congress declare a state of emergency. And this state of emergency has been renewed 22 instances, each 30 days. We’re virtually at a two-year mark underneath a state of emergency within the title of combating the gangs.
And what does the state of emergency get him when it comes to energy?
It suspends primary rights, like proper to protection or the presumption of innocence. More navy on the streets and extra navy assets. The authorities to this point has imprisoned over 75,000 individuals — that’s greater than 1 p.c of the inhabitants.
El Salvador is the nation with the best incarceration price on the earth. There are hundreds of reviews of arbitrary arrests, of abuse, of torture. But once more, that is presumably his most celebrated measure and the one which has finally made him one of the crucial in style politicians within the Americas.
Bukele appears to have consolidated a lot energy whereas in workplace. But he’s nonetheless restricted by a constitutional time period restrict. How does he get previous that?
The Salvadoran structure may be very clear that reelection is prohibited. Basically, you could be president as many instances as you win in El Salvador, however simply not consecutively. So in September 2021, the Constitutional chamber, which is managed by pro-Bukele magistrates, issued a decision that claims that solely the individuals can resolve whether or not the president ought to proceed, ignoring the articles of the Constitution.
The chamber principally interprets one article of the structure to say the one requirement is that he step down from the place of president six months earlier than the start of the brand new presidential time period. So he stepped down from workplace earlier than December 1st of 2023, and the brand new interval will start in June.
What do individuals assume he’s going to do now that he has this historic second time period?
When he introduced that he was working, he stated we’ve proven that that is the one appropriate path for El Salvador. We can count on the state of emergency to proceed. There’s no indication that Bukele plans to dial again his insurance policies.
There’s a priority that a number of consultants talked about regarding his reputation whereas so many individuals have been arrested. As his reputation decreases, there’s a priority that he’ll use the navy much more, turn out to be extra ironfisted, and implement extra of those insurance policies to take care of his energy.