El Salvador update: authoritarianism sweeps the board

On February 28th, El Salvador went to the polls to elect its parliament and local mayors, as previewed earlier on Labour Hub. This assessment of the results is edited from the blogs of Tim Muth, who lives in the country.

Nuevas Ideas 56 deputies (+56)

ARENA 14 deputies (-23)

GANA 5 deputies (-5)

FMLN 4 deputies (-19)

PCN 2 deputies (-7)

Nuestro Tiempo 1 deputy (+1)

Vamos 1 deputy (+1)

PDC 1 deputy (-2)

Preliminary results from the national elections in El Salvador show that President Nayib Bukele has consolidated power as his Nuevas Ideas party took commanding control of the country’s legislature.   The party appears certain to have achieved the 2/3rds majority necessary not only to pass laws, but to appoint the next attorney general and members of the supreme court.   It was a decisive rebuke to the older parties, ARENA and FMLN, which had governed the country for decades.

To be sure, those opposition political parties have much to be criticized for. Past presidents from both ARENA and the FMLN are charged with diverting hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds. Both parties are charged with paying tens of thousands of dollars to street gangs for support in the 2014 presidential election. Both parties give away patronage jobs in the Legislative Assembly as if it were their birthright. Both parties failed to move forward important legislation in the legislature. Multiple members of the Legislative Assembly are under investigation for deals with gangs, and multiple members are cited for having participated in war crimes during El Salvador’s civil war.

As a consequence, for a very long time, political parties and the legislature were the two institutions in which the Salvadoran public had the least confidence according to opinion polls. Bukele took the distrust of those parties and amplified it to his great advantage. The old parties have been completely unable to reform themselves.

This possibility that Nuevas Ideas would dominate the Legislative Assembly caused many persons to warn of the autocratic tendencies of Bukele, and to point out that super-majority control of the Assembly would remove many checks and balances on Bukele’s power. They warned of a populist dictatorship in the making.

Those warnings did not catch on with the Salvadoran public. Good governance, check and balances, and institutional values are too abstract when you are worried about the gangs on your street, the pandemic in your community, and the prospects of your economic future. And during the course of election day, Bukele provided further evidence that he cared little for the norms of El Salvador’s representative democracy. Salvadoran election law requires that campaign speech cease three days before the election, including election day. Bukele and Nuevas Ideas, however, campaigned throughout that time, blithely ignoring the requirement and daring the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to do anything about it. Bukele kept up a constant barrage of charges that there was going to be fraud committed by the opposition, yet there was never any evidence of this.  Bukele gave a press conference in the middle of the afternoon Sunday where he again urged on his supporters, asserted that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was attempting to block their victory, and attacked the country’s investigative press.  His supporters loved it.

The tidal wave of support for Nuevas Ideas also appeared at the level of local elections. Candidates from Nuevas Ideas won election as mayor in 149 of the country’s 262 municipalities.   This included 13 of the 14 cites which are department seats including the biggest prize, San Salvador.

La Prensa Grafica reported the reaction of the left wing FMLN after it was reduced to only 4 seats in the Assembly:

“The party’s general secretary, Óscar Ortiz, said: ‘We have lost an election, but our political proposition still exists. It will continue with the country in mind’… The former vice president announced that they will begin a consultation process with the party’s rank and file, and which could mean the reform of the party’s statutes. ‘We are going to have at the centre the participation of many young people, many women, professionals, progressive people, who are going to make very important contributions to us and the result will be that we make the changes that are required at all levels,’ he said.”

For critics worried about the growing role of the military in El Salvador’s political life, it was unsettling to see the Minister of Defence coming out to affirmatively applaud the results and to criticize the civilian election authorities of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Salvadoran journalist and writer Roberto Valencia wrote in the Washington Post: “If someone wants to see the glass half full, Bukele has accumulated enough political capital to be able to face in the three years that remain entrenched problems, such as starvation pensions, tax reform or dialogue with the gangs. But there are also ample reasons to see the glass as half empty, and that the massive popular support accentuates the authoritarian drift and growing militarism. We won’t have to wait long to find out.”

Tim Muth is a US-trained lawyer who works on matters involving civil liberties and human rights. He blogs at El Salvador Perspectives, and you can follow him on Twitter as @TimMuth.

Image: Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/vectors/el-salvador-flag-map-country-878218/

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