Thirty-five years have passed since Latin America’s democratization in the early 1990s when several countries transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy. Since then, Latin America has been one of the most politically diverse regions in terms of the range of regimes it hosts and the particularities of each one of them. In fact, two countries are currently moving from imperfect democracies to hybrid regimes: Mexico and El Salvador.
Hybrid regimes, according to specialists such as Leonardo Morlino and Terry Kart, are characterized by countries that share four conditions: they have a weak rule of law, are polarized, have a robust military presence, and have periodic elections in a multiparty system with alternations.
In the case of Mexico and El Salvador, both coincide in the particular form of their leaders and in how they took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the confinements to strengthen their leadership. According to the IDEA 2021 report, the pandemic brought a setback in democratic matters in the region, since it represented the possibility of postponing elections, retaining power, or consolidating their government project.
In Mexico, the foundations of authoritarianism have not disappeared.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself stated: “The pandemic was a perfect fit for us to consolidate the transformation”. Not only was the phrase controversial. Since then, the official rhetoric and the government’s agenda contrary to several sectors of society became more radical. And in terms of freedom of expression, the government began to disqualify and attack journalists, which is a characteristic of the advance toward hybridization.
Another sector under attack has been the middle class. In 2021, in the midterm elections, the ruling party lost the qualified majority in the House of Representatives and half of the country’s capital, which has historically belonged to the left. The President started attacking this sector, stating that “the middle class supported Hitler and Pinochet”.
From the point of view of polarization, President López Obrador and his co-religionists have divided the country in two: the good people against the aspirational or corrupt. In fact, the president has declared that “you are either with the transformation or against it”, which shows that for him there is no middle ground. This also further exacerbates divisiveness in the country.
The third element, the most worrisome, is the militarization of functions that historically have been civilian. Although since 2006 the military has had a relevant role in public security functions, in this government they were deepened when the Army became the main constructor of the federal government’s mega-projects.
The Armed Forces also participated in educational tasks when they were charged with the distribution of books, in vaccination during the pandemic, and in the formation of a civic-military body known as the National Guard, which has the objective of returning the Army to the barracks. This militarization of the civilian sphere has generated concern, as it has violated Article 129 of the Constitution which establishes that, in times of peace, the Armed Forces may only carry out activities related to military discipline. According to the academic Roger Bartra, in Mexico democracy arrived and opened to plurality, but the foundations of authoritarianism did not disappear.
The rapid decomposition of democracy in El Salvador
Another case of hybridization is El Salvador, which has been transforming since Nayib Bukele became president. He is an outsider who broke with the bipartisanship of Arena and the Farabundo Marti Front, and early on showed an anti-democratic disposition. On February 10, 2020, Bukele called for insurrection and the Armed Forces to enter Congress and force the representatives to approve the loan for the Territorial Control Plan and, thus, fight crime.
The use of the Army to pressure Congress means a rapid democratic erosion, as well as broad support from the population, as the president called, via Twitter, for insurrection. Then, in March 2021, his party Nuevas Ideas won the qualified majority. Within a month, five magistrates were expelled from the Supreme Court and other people close to the government were appointed. This decision violated judicial independence and further undermined democracy.
The first state of emergency was decreed in March 2022 and has been extended ten times until March 2023. The military has gained relevance and President Bukele has used it to justify the fight against crime, the lack of transparency, and the constant violation of human rights. No one is opposed to reducing crime, but there is a regulatory framework to do so. When this barrier is broken, democracy is also broken, because, without rules, democracy does not exist.
On the other hand, on September 16, 2022, Bukele announced that he would seek reelection in the 2024 elections, despite the Constitution’s prohibition of the immediate reelection of the Presidency in at least 6 articles. Nevertheless, his decision was justified by a sentence that establishes that, although consecutive reelection has not been allowed, if the president leaves power with 6 months of anticipation, he may run again. In this way, El Salvador has become an autocracy, a regime centered on the personality of a leader, and the political system is being molded in his image and likeness.
Beyond the diagnosis, we should be concerned about the advance of authoritarianism despite the high level of popularity and social support of leaders such as López Obrador and Bukele. Democracy is not perfect, but it is perfectible. Is it worth granting power and ceding rights to authoritarian leaders to solve problems with methods that hurt plurality and institutionally?
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva