Date first published: 18 February 2020

Key sectors: all

Key risks: governability; political stability; civil unrest

On 9 February President Nayib Bukele unexpectedly and blatantly flirted with authoritarianism. Apparently tired of waiting for the Legislative Assembly (LA) to approve a loan to finance part of his security plan, the president briefly occupied the legislature escorted by armed security forces to pressure lawmakers after calling for an extraordinary session through constitutional article 167. He also called on article 87 recognising the citizens’ right of insurrection. The move was heavily criticised for undermining parliamentary independence and raised fears that Bukele’s public persona could be a cover for undemocratic leanings in a country with a relatively recent history of authoritarianism and civil war. Although tensions somewhat quieted after Bukele agreed to obey a Supreme Court ruling ordering him not to use security forces to put pressure the LA, concerns over the nascent autocratic drive and constitutional crisis will persist.

Bukele’s actions were bolstered by his high approval rating – close to 90 per cent – and his widely popular anti-crime strategies. The 38-year old took office in June 2019 following a landslide victory on the promise of cracking down on corruption and improving security, successfully capitalising on public frustration with the country’s two main parties, the leftist FMLN and the conservative ARENA. Official figures showed that homicides reached a record-low of 3.8 per day in January 2020, down from 9.2 in June 2019. Hundreds of Bukele’s supporters responded to his call to demonstrate outside the LA during this attempt to expedite his security agenda with the help of security forces holding automatic weapons. The president invoked the Constitution’s Article 167 – reserved for national emergencies – to convene the session. Only 22 out of 84 lawmakers showed up as most of the opposition-controlled LA boycotted the move, calling it an attempted coup.

The showdown stoked concerns over Bukele’s autocratic drive. The controversial move to invoke Article 167 was criticised for violating parliamentary independence and institutional protections. The scene involving a heavy military presence also highlighted Bukele’s populist tendencies as he targeted El Salvador’s two least-popular institutions, the LA and traditional political parties. The FMLN and ARENA together hold a 60-seat majority against 11 seats held by Bukele’s right-wing GANA party. Securing the legislature’s approval will now be increasingly challenging.

The effectiveness and transparency of Bukele’s security strategy will continue to be questioned despite the reported drop in homicides. It has already been criticised for being an emulation of the controversial ‘iron fist’ approach initiated by former president Francisco Flores in the early 2000s, then intermittently used by successive FMLN and ARENA governments. A similar sharp decline in violent crime in 2012 turned out to be the result of a secret deal between the government and the powerful street gangs known as ‘maras’. The agreement fell apart after it was exposed, leading to increased violence.

Institutional and foreign outcry forced Bukele to at least temporarily backtrack and defiantly state that were he to be a dictator, he would have “taken control of everything”. Nonetheless, the lamentable episode has underscored both populist tendencies and an autocratic drive that will certainly create more reluctance amongst lawmakers to support the president. The following weeks will be crucial to demonstrate whether Bukele will wait for the 2021 legislative elections to gain a majority in the LA or if he is ready to push forward his plans event at the expense of undermining democracy.