October 26: the Salvadoran president is overthrown by a coup d’état. The year is 1960; the deposed president is José María Lemus. Same day, sixty-three years later: the Salvadoran president registered his presidential candidacy although the Constitution excludes reelection. He is protected by a ruling of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, whose judges have been elected in an irregular process in Congress at the behest of the first president: Nayib Bukele.
Two events as unalike as 1960 and 2023 are usually placed on the same track: the one that leads from democracy to autocracy. However, they are radically different political processes. To confuse them reduces the highly complex clockwork of politics to an hourglass: the sand is either in the upper receptacle — democracy — or in the lower one — autocracy —; no further analysis is possible. However, the contrasts between 1960 and 2023 help to elucidate what is happening in El Salvador right now, and the picture that emerges is certainly more complex and interesting.
Let us begin by dispelling two myths about democracy. The first is that it is here to stay indefinitely and that its degradation is an anomaly, an unnatural process. Nothing could be further from the truth: two thousand years ago, Polybius established that upright regimes tend to degenerate over time. Not only democracy, but also democracy.
The second myth is that when democracy fades away, its place is unavoidably taken by autocracy. Polybius himself disproves this: democracy tends to degenerate into demagogy, that is, the deviant rule of the majority. Naturally, what the Greek proposes is a general outline, not an exhaustive encyclopedia of democratic breakdowns. But it puts us, at the very least, on a track of great interest: contrary to what we read day after day, not everything that is not democracy is an autocracy.
Let us go back to October 26, 1960. What existed in El Salvador until the previous day was not strictly a democracy: it was a mixed regime. The reader can already guess which Greek thinker oversaw defining such regimes. Mixed: a combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In Polybius’ Rome, this materialized in a government formed by two consuls (monarchical component), a senate (aristocratic sector), and the plebs’ tribunes (democratic element).
The newly independent Latin American republics took the Roman ideal and adapted it to the U.S. presidential model: president (monarchy), upper house (aristocracy), and lower house (democracy). It is approximately the same scheme that is in force today in practically the entire region, even if we do not constantly bear in mind its origin.
A similar configuration existed in José María Lemus’ El Salvador. Simplifying a lot, one could identify the president (or the government as a whole) with the monarchical component and the lower house as the democratic factor. In the absence of a Senate, the aristocratic element would be constituted by various corporations, which today we would identify with the “powers that be”, the institutional checks and balances within the state, etc.
What happens during a military coup d’état such as that of 1960 is that the constitutional president is removed by a military junta. In Polybius’ terms, the monarchical component is displaced by its corresponding deviant: tyranny (the deviant rule of a single or very small nucleus). And the democratic element is eliminated: the representatives voted by the people disappear.
As we dissect the 1960 dossier, light is shed on the 2023 dossier and the differences between the two emerge. When Bukele decides to run in elections that are forbidden to him by the Constitution, he is not directly attacking democracy. He erodes the rule of law. That is, the subjection of power to the laws. Polybius would say that Bukele degrades the monarchic component and transforms it into a tyranny. But democracy still stands, as long as the elections of 2024 are clean and allow the citizens to keep the current president in power or expel him.
Now, if the majority of citizens vote for a candidate who openly breaks the law, who manipulates the Supreme Court to endorse his unconstitutional drift, will we continue to locate the problem in Bukele himself? Will we continue to locate it in the monarchic/tyrannical component? It would be a serious mistake. That is why it is so useful and necessary to recover Polybius: to understand that in the case of El Salvador there is a fuse called democracy, which allows the people to eject a tyrannical ruler from power. And if the citizenry, on the contrary of ejecting him, legitimizes him, then what would happen will be the degradation of democracy into demagogy — not autocracy.
Finally, a relevant nuance. One of the accusations against Bukele is the persecution of the independent press, and one of the essential factors for reliable elections is that the citizenry has diverse and as complete information as possible. In this respect, it could be affirmed, if the accusations are true, that Bukele is twisting the breathing apparatus of democracy. And in the face of the democratic fainting, the mixed regime is dissolved and power is re-concentrated in the tyrant.
*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.