El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has reportedly announced his intention to run again despite an explicit prohibition in the country’s Constitution.
This is reported by alJazeera according to which Bukele has explicitly stated that he intends to run to try to be entrusted by Salvadorans with a second five-year term, despite the fact that the country’s constitution prohibits presidents from serving consecutive presidential terms.
Bukele has been president of El Salvador since June 2019, so just over two years, and the next elections are expected to be held in 2024, which is the year of Bitcoin’s fourth halving.
Nayib Bukele does not want to respect the Constitution of El Salvador
The Constitution of El Salvador was drafted in 1983, and amended in 2003. It expressly states in Article 152 that “no person who has held the office of President of the Republic for more than six months, consecutive or otherwise, in the period immediately preceding, that is, in the last six months preceding the beginning of the presidential term, may be a candidate for the office of President of the Republic.”
A reappointment of Bukele would thus be effectively unconstitutional as things stand, but it is not ruled out that before the 2024 elections this article will be amended.
After all, some changes were already made in 2003. Moreover, Bukele himself says that in Latin American countries it is the practice to re-elect presidents.
That is why last Thursday during the live Independence Day speech he stated:
“I am announcing to the Salvadoran people that I have decided to run for president of the republic.”
— El Faro English (@elfaroenglish) September 16, 2022
He added that developed countries have re-election, and that “thanks to the new configuration of the democratic institution of our country” El Salvador will have it too.
In fact, a few days ago the country’s new Supreme Court justices, appointed by lawmakers allied with Bukele, ruled that presidents can run to seek a second consecutive term even despite the constitutional prohibition.
This decision by the Supreme Court justices is astounding, to say the least, because it means that in El Salvador the Supreme Court is worth more than even the country’s constitution itself. The fact that the president can have Supreme Court justices appointed to be his friends makes this unconstitutional step rather dangerous.
El Salvador’s Supreme Court surpasses the Constitution
According to several Salvadoran constitutionalists, allowing presidents to seek reelection would violate at least four articles of the constitution, including one that limits presidential terms to five years. The Supreme Court justices’ decision therefore marks an authoritarian turn in the Central American country, where a president can even be allowed to disregard the constitution if it prohibits him from being reelected.
However, the Salvadoran constitution has already been amended once, in 2003, and theoretically there would still be nearly two years to possibly amend it to make reelection constitutional.
The US State Department has strongly criticized this Supreme Court decision that would effectively undermine democracy in El Salvador, threatening that any decline in democratic governance would damage relations between the two countries.
According to polls, Bukele would enjoy the support of the people, but the results showing him supported by 85% of the population look a little too much like those of authoritarian countries.
Not only has the president long been accused of being overly authoritarian, but he is also known for decisions made without consulting the people, such as adopting Bitcoin as legal tender.
El Salvador on the road to dictatorship
There are those who now expressly speak of an authoritarian drift toward a form of dictatorship, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Juan Papier, who says that El Salvador has long since been on the road to becoming a dictatorship, due to ideological biases, cowardice, geopolitical interests, and an obsession with immigration.
Esta rompimiento constitucional era predecible. El Salvador hace rato va camino a ser una dictadura y muchos, por sesgo ideológico, cobardía, intereses geopolíticos u obsesión con la inmigración, no quisieron alzar la voz a tiempo o ayudar a impedirlo. https://t.co/BP2LYnFv6N
— Juan Pappier (@JuanPappierHRW) September 16, 2022
For example, he had emergency powers granted to him for a limited period of time, but already extended six times.
The situation in El Salvador is not easy, and apparently under Bukele something is indeed changing. However, should the change eventually lead toward a dictatorship it would also bring with it the usual enormous problems that dictatorships are subject to.
In August alone, more than 50,000 people were arrested and detained during the campaign of repression against armed gangs, so much so that HRW found that serious human rights violations have been committed in the country, including arbitrary detention apparently based on people’s appearance and social background.
HRW also argues that the Bukele government has significantly weakened the country’s democratic institutions, allowing its administration to operate with very few checks on its executive power.
So on the one hand there is a difficult situation that is actually changing, while on the other hand there is a democracy that is turning into an authoritarian regime.
El Salvador is 135th in the world in GDP per capita, behind countries like Ukraine, Guatemala, Mongolia and Kosovo. In Latin America, only Belize, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti do worse, although after the pandemic they seem to have recovered quite well.
By now, GDP per capita has been increasing at a steady pace for at least 50 years in El Salvador, and it is possible that 2022 from this point of view will score better than average. However, 2020 was a very difficult year, so the situation is far from good.
In the US, they believe that Bukele’s policies already constitute for all intents and purposes an authoritarian drift in the country, and the rating agencies are cutting its public debt rating. According to Fitch Ratings, the debt has been downgraded to CC, which is a lower level than countries at war such as Ukraine or the Republic of Congo.
Economic activity in El Salvador
In theory, the Bukele government aims to make up for these problems through tourism and cryptocurrency-related activities, but it is not certain that such a policy can really settle the state’s finances. Perhaps he also hoped to be helped by Bitcoin, since he had invested several million dollars when the value was far higher than it is today.
Surely Bukele still has at least two years to achieve concrete and significant economic results anyway, but this does not rule out an authoritarian drift.
Taking as a reference the so-called “democracy index” compiled by the Economist, El Salvador is not a democracy but a semi-authoritarian hybrid regime, with values declining precisely since Bukele became president. In this respect, it is considered similar to Ecuador, Paraguay and Mexico, but well below Panama, Peru and the Dominican Republic.
However, the real dictatorships are distant, because while El Salvador right now hovers a bit below 6 points, with, for example, Chile and Costa Rica around 8 and Uruguay almost at 9, dictatorships such as Venezuela and Cuba hover well below 3 points. However, before Bukele’s election, El Salvador’s level was above 6.5, while now it is at 5.7.