Trading Democracy for Stability: El Salvador and Nayib Bukele

Nayib Bukele speaks at a political rally – Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Ethan Coulon

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign introduced social media into the political landscape, but Donald Trump’s 2016 use of Twitter baptized the new approach to populism in fire. Today, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele tweets on a daily basis to criticize parliament, praise his own policies or simply post memes, all while declaring himself as the “world’s coolest dictator” in his bio. Similar to Donald Trump, Bukele’s tweets are short and often brutal, with simple and provocative vocabulary rather than the traditional withdrawn language used by most elected officials. Bukele’s brand of populism has transformed his country’s political system, but at the expense of democracy.

Bukele is the first “millennial” president of El Salvador and brandishes a youthful passion to his controversial political reforms. He styles himself as a revolutionary reformer, as implied by his party “Nuevas Ideas”. Founded in 2017, Nuevas Ideas has completely eclipsing traditional parties and secured more than half of the seats in the legislative assembly, municipalities, and parliament. Bukele’s internet-driven populism has taken control of Salvadoran politics.

Bukele and his party frame themselves in contrast to a corrupt and evil Salvadoran political class responsible for major criminal networks such as MS-13 or Barrio 18. El Salvador’s crime wave encouraged the mass departure of many Salvadorans, undermining the workforce and crippling the national economy. While Donald Trump’s internet presence railed against “illegal immigration”, Bukele bluntly agrees with Trump on a “migration crisis,” tying right-wing America concerns about arriving Salvadorans with El Salvador’s economic weakness. 

In Bukele’s mind, keeping Salvadorans at home means crushing the nation’s criminal element. His solution was a zero-tolerance policy along with an increase of the Salvadoran military and law enforcement budgets. This program required limiting other government programs  along with a $109M loan request to the United States. When Bukele’s reforms began, his Nuevas Ideas failed to constitute a majority in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and his program was blocked by nationalist and leftist opponents. They demanded transparency as to how the funds would be allocated, which Bukele immediately refused, leading to a gridlock in the Assembly in late January 2020.

Just a few days later, Nayib Bukele invoked Article 167 of the Constitution, declaring a national emergency to force a vote on his budget. Hours before the session, Bukele met with top military officials and discussed sending the military in the Assembly during the session. Less than half of the Legislative Assembly came to the session, accusing the young president of adopting dictatorial behaviors. The few who came to the session were met by 40 military personnel equipped with bullet proof vests and assault rifles.

A determined Bukele sat in the chair of the Assembly President and stated: “It’s clear who’s in control of the situation and we’re going to put the decision in the hands of God,” and declared to reporters “We’re going to give these scoundrels a week and if they haven’t approved the plan by then, we convene them again”. The Salvadoran assembly approved the funding.

The world came to a screeching halt a month later. On March 17th 2020, Bukele declared harsh COVID measures, introducing a lockdown order with a mandate to arrest non-compliant civilians and even confiscate vehicles and property. The Salvadoran Supreme Court struck down the measure on April 16th, but the world’s coolest dictator refused. He saw COVID lockdowns as a method to crush  gang violence and transform El Salvador in his own image. 

Bukele implemented an even harsher lockdown in prisons, locking prisoners in their cells for 23 hours a day and having cells barricaded with metal sheets, “punishing” gangs who renewed fighting during the lockdown. While the criminal justice system collapsed in front of the president’s ambitions, Bukele drastically increased funding for Salvadoran Hospitals, using close business connections to flood Salvadoran news channels with praise for his program. Nayib Bukele’s political opponents were outraged but left with little choice than to wait to contest him in the next election.

A year later, Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party won 56 out of 84 seats  in the assembly. Controlling two key bodies of a political system modeled after American democracy, Bukele quickly used his new legislature to remove the 5 judges of the Salvadoran Supreme Court as well as political opponent Attorney General Melara and replace them with loyalists. His power was solidified even further in October of 2022, when Bukele pushed for a policy that would allow Salvadorans living outside the country to vote in the 2024 presidential election, a move which his opponents consider election fraud.

As of 2023, the harsh security policies remain in place. Bukele’s new hospitals have been paired with new prisons.  The millennial president uses his twitter account to celebrate his strength, depicting military drills and arrested gang leaders. His display of strength is justified, as gang violence has drastically reduced, greatly improving Bukele’s image and earning him a 91% approval rate as of February. Opposition parties such as ARENA (far right) and FMLN (hard left) declared that they will not form a coalition in the next election, effectively guaranteeing Bukele victory.

Bukele now seeks to establish a global political presence. positioning himself as a leader opposed to a “liberal” establishment, with President Biden refusing to meet him. American conservatives praise Bukele, especially Latin-American conservatives. Representative Mayra Flores (R-TX-34), the first Mexican-born female representative, celebrates El Salvador’s policies alongside right-wing news such as the Daily Wire or Alex Jones’s Infowars. Predictably, Bukele gratefully acknowledges this attention on Twitter.

The world’s coolest dictator’s dominance of El Salvador’s online political messaging is now matched by control over the levers of power. Bukele has gained strong control over the Salvadoran assembly and humiliated his political opponents on his own online terms, portraying them as incompetent and corrupt. Salvadoran voters seem to accept a bargain of less freedom and more fragile democracy for security, after years of civil war and exacerbated gang violence.

The 41-year old president has effectively guaranteed a 2024 re-election, and his alternative model of democracy may soon inspire other areas in the Global South. Bukele is not unique in his brutal crackdowns – Rodrigo Duterte and Bongbong Marcos in the Philippines have followed similar models but with very different effects and approaches. As the anti-establishment strong-man takes control of new countries, the future of democracy and civil liberties must be preserved. Praise of El Salvador’s accomplishments must be paired with concern for the civil rights of Salvadorans. 

Ethan Coulon is an undergraduate student at Syracuse University, majoring in International Relations and Political Science. He is interested in civil-military relations as well as authoritarian leaders and regimes. He is an active executive board member of the Syracuse University chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society.






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