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Some reflections on the elections in El Salvador 

The alternative scenarios to republican democracy seem to be clustered in the failed state of Haiti, or in the unpopular autocratic models of the left or in the popular autocratic models of the right, such as El Salvador.

Nayib Bukele was reelected with 84% of Salvadoran voters supporting him. There are many things to say about the elections in El Salvador. Indeed, they are being said or written right now. Many analysts warn about a dangerous autocratic turn, while others insist on the popular character of this phenomenon. 

I have witnessed these elections and would like to highlight some aspects. I would like to give it a regional context. First, I can assure you that these were elections with guarantees: any democratic activist in Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, or even Bolivia would envy the conditions of electoral competitiveness. There was an electoral authority that made great efforts to implement an electoral process following international standards of elections with integrity, and it has largely succeeded. 

Clean elections

Among several aspects, it is worth mentioning the presence of representatives of opposition parties in the voting centers, where, to the surprise of all international observers, there was even a cordial relationship with the representatives of the government party. This opposition party “watchers” were able to be present during the election day, witness the counting of votes at the polling stations, defend their votes, and take a copy of the polling station minutes with their results. This seems to be a minor issue, but it is not. At a later stage, when there were problems in the transmission of the minutes of the polling stations, the Electoral Tribunal quickly summoned the parties and decided to carry out the definitive scrutiny by opening all the ballot boxes, and counting vote by vote. I insist. This is no small thing in this convulsed Latin America. 

However, the fact that there are guarantees does not mean that there was not a situation of electoral advantages in benefit of a government party that has a golden key in the Assembly and a charismatic leader like Bukele, who at this point has become a reference in the world. There was advantageism, and this may have somewhat increased his vote flow, but one infers that there is no overrepresentation but an unstoppable popular phenomenon. 

In other words, there was an electoral-tilted field due to administrative and institutional support (for example, concerning delays in the allocation of funds for electoral campaigns), but above all due to the extraordinary political scenario in which a man and a party absorb such popular support that is rare in political systems characterized by diversity and pluralism. This fundamental asymmetry put the whole institutional framework in crisis. Likewise, let me make an important clarification: this overwhelming percentage of support responds to a low level of participation, which is around 52% of the electoral registry. In short, those who participate overwhelmingly support Bukele, but there is a high percentage that does not participate, which also requires a political reading.

The enormous support for Bukele

As for the causes that gave rise to this popular phenomenon, they are varied. Most agree that the fight against organized crime has been the main reason. It cannot be overlooked that the Salvadoran state was on the verge of dissolution as the gangs, as paramilitary organizations, challenged the State’s capacity to guarantee territorial unity. Bukele regained control of the state, re-centralized power, regained monopoly control over the use of force, and from that point on, security returned to the citizens, who rewarded him with their unconditional support. This was done in the context of a state of emergency renewed every thirty days by the Assembly.

In this passage, the party system collapsed, the last two-party system in Latin America, and Bukele did not control himself as a convinced republican would have done. On the contrary, he took advantage of that power to advance over other powers. The most emblematic case was when an Assembly with a special majority of the governing party changed the members of the Constitutional Tribunal to enable Bukele to run for reelection. This has been the most questionable aspect of the electoral process. 

Comparisons of this process with that of Hugo Chavez have been gushing, although I find some substantial differences. Both presented a notorious drive to concentrate power, that is clear. Chávez was a leftist, with an openly anti-capitalist position. His admiration for the Cuban model dismantled the productive apparatus, expelled millions of Venezuelans from his own country and impoverished the population that was trapped in the country. An old model, of communist imprint, anchored to a narrative of the “revolutionary” left in Latin America. It made insecurity a state policy and propagated it by creating armed collectives, true para-state shock forces, consecrating impunity, and empowering organized crime. A de facto and permanent state of exception. From the scarcity and centralization of power, the model of social control that prevails today was formed. It has been 26 long and painful years of this regime, which when it ceased to be popular, intervened in the National Electoral Council and suppressed free elections to implement scandalous electoral frauds. 

Bukele’s profile is different. He shares with Chavism an anti-republican conception with a marked autocratic bias. Still, the president of El Salvador has a capitalist, right-wing economic conception that raises conservative and innovative banners at the same time. He manages and seeks investments and projects, and that is already a notable difference with Chavism. Regarding the exercise of political rights, in Venezuela those who are in the country cannot vote, and even less those who were expelled by the dictatorship during all this time. 

On the other hand, in El Salvador not only those registered in the electoral registry can vote with guarantees, but also, after a recent political electoral reform, technology was implemented in the vote abroad for Salvadorans expelled due to the lack of opportunities provided by their own country. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal implemented remote voting by internet and remote voting abroad in person. The results were impressive because the number of voters grew from just over 3,800 in the 2019 elections to more than 560,000 in these last elections.

Of course, its link with China is worrying and generates uncertainty because a political model to follow could be insinuated there, with its own American seasoning, by the way.

A right-wing autocracy

So where does Bukele go after this categorical triumph? That “one-party democratic regime” announced in the speech where he proclaimed himself the winner will be a fact, and getting out of there will not be easy because it seems to work as long as the wind is in his favor. When the political or economic climate changes, autocratic profiles tend to consecrate new authoritarian turns that allow them to keep power.

Those of us who are committed to democracy feel challenged by the case of El Salvador. Democracy has presented important flaws that have generated a loss in the quality of life and generalized discontent for the citizenry. Its weak institutional framework has been permeated by corruption and organized crime. Often, political parties were representatives of these criminal organizations. Autocracies such as Iran, China, and Russia have feasted on these weaknesses. They have financed political parties and leaders who, when they took power, dismantled democracy and the rule of law, and, when they were or are in opposition, can sabotage any democratic project.

The alternative scenarios to republican democracy seem to merge in the failed state of Haiti, or the unpopular autocratic models of the left, such as those of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, or now in the popular autocratic models of the right, such as that of El Salvador. In any case, this confirms the democratic recession, the lack of confidence in it, and the problems it has in combining electoral competition with positive results for its citizens. Finally, the fact that it exposes the weak capacity of the hemisphere’s international organizations to contain autocratic turns in these crisis scenarios. In short, the case of El Salvador should lead all defenders of the democratic system and human rights to carry out a profound and honest self-criticism.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Otros artículos del autor

Politólogo. Director de Transparencia Electoral de América Latina. Profesor de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). Magister en Derecho Electoral por la Univ. Castilla La Mancha (España). Autor del libro “Así se Vota en Cuba”.


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