By Antonija Diković (edited by Isabel Leask and Sonja Rijnen)-
Recently, there has been a lot of news about El Salvador, a small country that usually does not appear much in international media. One of the main reasons for this is Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador since mid-2019. As one of the youngest heads of state worldwide (he is 40 years old), Bukele has, in the eyes of many, revolutionised political campaigns in Latin America. However, while many placed great hopes on this head of state so full of “new ideas” and energy, over time, and as a result of various personal decisions, his image has begun to deteriorate to the extent that he has been compared with Hugo Chávez for blatantly undermining democratic processes and institutions.
Latin America has a long tradition of authoritarian regimes, both on the right and on the left of the political spectrum: Stroessner, Videla, Pinochet, Castro, Chávez are just a few names that evoke the word “authoritarian” and “dictatorship”. Whether it is the 20th or 21st century, history has not stopped repeating itself. The case of the president of El Salvador seems to be following this same path. Despite the fact that the name of his political movement is "Nuevas Ideas" (New Ideas) perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "single idea". In recent months, Nayib Bukele has received criticism from Salvadorians and the international community alike for various authoritarian tendencies such as his appointment of like-minded judges to the constitutional chamber and restricting freedom of the press. The so-called "coolest president in the world", is now comparable with any other authoritarian regime in the world.
To give more context, after the bloody civil war (1980-1992), El Salvador was a bipartisan country and the governments were marked by privatisation and dollarization, as well as high rates of corruption. This, along with escalating gang violence and mass emigration from the country meant that, after a long period of the right-wing ARENA (The Nationalist Republican Alliance) government (1989-2004), the majority of voters became disillusioned with the ruling oligarchy that, according to public opinion, had alienated itself from the Salvadoran people. This culminated in the rise of the then opposition, FMLN of a more socialist, but also populist nature, which ruled until 2012 when ARENA regained power.
In this context, Nayib Bukele appears, first as an FMLN militant and then as an independent candidate who quickly managed to create his own political platform, “New Ideas”. It is very easy to follow Bukele's trajectory and astronomically fast path to the presidency. His decision to leave the FMLN party was admired by many, as he claimed that “FMLN and ARENA are two sides of the same coin”. It quickly became evident that Bukele planned to base his campaign on the dichotomy of “us” and “them” which subsequently led to his election in 2019 as he seemed to promise a breath of fresh and disruptive air in a country where bipartisanship reigned.
After his election there was widespread praise in the media and euphoria amongst the people, however, some could already see that Bukele's political path was paved with authoritarian signs from the outset. Specifically, his disregard for traditional democratic institutions and anything that he believed didn’t conform to the “new”, “digital” or “subversive” with which he associated himself. This was epitomised by his conduct during a speech to the General Assembly of the UN, when he took a selfie and uploaded it to social media instantly, claiming that more people would see his selfie than listen to his speech.
Of course, as always, situations are not black and white. To his credit, Nayib Bukele had, and still has, many problems to solve, and his situation is not easy while expectations are high. He must modernise the country in terms of infrastructure, digitalise and improve internet connection, reduce the emigration of Salvadorans, continue to decrease violence rates, reintegrate former gang members (“Los Mareros”) into society, and change the country's negative reputation abroad to name but a few.
When speaking about the President, one of the young Salvadorans interviewed for this article, said something very important: "although he is a bit of a dictator, he does what he promises." It is maybe the most important phrase to explain this situation and why it's so easy to rule with a heavy hand and win people's sympathy at the same time, not just in El Salvador but in many other countries in the region too. There have been many cases in Latin America, El Salvador being an example, where leaders have managed to win over the population by improving living standards and keeping some of their promises, at least initially. However, any government that serves the entire population should not feel the need to resort to authoritarian measures when faced with conflicting opinions. It is all very well for a young and enthusiastic president to want the best for his country, but if President Bukele with his vision of a modern state wants to leave a positive legacy, he will have to focus on how to make all Salvadorans safe and with a better standard of living while also respecting democracy.
Being young, impulsive and ambitious is not a problem in itself and modern leaders don't have to be conventional. We have the examples of Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau who, also being young and "modern", have both shown that a leader can do a lot with more untraditional methods. However, what they have in common and what Nayib Bukele, like so many others before him, lacks, is absolute respect for democracy. A modern leader also needs to be serious about the rule of law, respect divisions of power, as well as freedom of the press.
Thinking that authoritarianism is the only option is the beginning of the end of democracy, and within a system that is already fragile in terms of respect for institutions, it is a very dangerous thought. Today, there is a lot of talk about the erosion of democracy, but maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is: what about those societies in which democracy is something under construction? There it is not an erosion but rather a process that, when stalled, could end years of attempts to improve the level of democracy in Latin America.
12. Mauricio Gomez, Andrea Marcela : “From Civil War to Peace: El Salvador’s Political and Military Transition”, 2021.