Bukele Advances Bid for Unconstitutional Reelection Amidst Seismic Reforms to Political System
Social movement groups denounce slashing of representation in legislature and municipalities as power grab
On July 10, President Nayib Bukele once again made headlines internationally when he officially became the 2024 presidential candidate for his Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas, in English) party, in clear violation of multiple articles of El Salvador’s constitution that bar consecutive presidential reelection. A September 2021 Supreme Court ruling, issued by Bukele loyalists who had been unlawfully installed several months prior, paved the way for his re-election bid by providing a veneer of legality.
News of Bukele’s official candidacy came on the heels of a series of shocking reforms that have entirely redrawn the country’s electoral map and system of representational government. In June, the legislature approved Bukele’s proposal to slash nearly one-third of the seats in the Legislative Assembly - from 84 to 60 - and another to eliminate over 80% of the country’s municipalities, reducing the total from 262 to 44.
Popular movement organizations say the drastic changes are intended to insulate Bukele against the possibility that waning support could have a negative impact for his political party in the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for February 2024 and municipal elections scheduled for March 2024. Though less visible in the international press, these drastic reforms represent a profound and troubling threat to the Salvadoran electoral system, adding to serious questions being raised by grassroots organizations as to whether free and fair elections are even possible at this point.
The legislative reforms
Though there is little question of Bukele’s abiding popularity, nor the expectation that he would win again if the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, as expected, allows his candidacy to proceed, that popularity does not necessarily extend to members of his party in the legislature.
Reflecting on 2022 polling, the Institute of Public Opinion at the University of Central America (IUDOP, in Spanish) concluded that “the opinion of the Salvadoran population is far from translating into unanimous backing towards [Nuevas Ideas legislative deputies], as the official discourse promotes.” Nearly four in ten Salvadorans gave the Legislative Assembly a performance score of less than five out of ten. The IUDOP also found that between November and May 2021, during the first six months of the new legislators’ term, the percentage of respondents who preferred the Nuevas Ideas party fell from 50 to 28, while those without party preference rose from 40 to 65.
As the Popular Resistance Bloc (BRP), a coalition of student, labor, rural and other popular movement organizations, explain, Bukele and Nuevas Ideas have failed to resolve many of the country’s most pressing issues, including “the real problems of hunger, the high cost of living, layoffs and unemployment, low wages, the food crisis, land evictions and persecution, among other serious problems that the population anguishes over day-by-day.”
As opposition parties began the process of forming coalitions, holding internal primaries, and announcing candidacies ahead of the 2024 elections, they had reason to hope they might win back supporters and increase their vote-counts. Just a slight shift in legislative seats could eliminate the super-majority Bukele has used since 2021 to fast-track approval for his agenda and give technical legitimacy to decisions that fly in the face of the Constitution and other laws. The reform to reduce the number of seats from 84 to 60, which passed on June 7 without debate, made hope for any such electoral gains all but impossible.
“The people are complaining that [the government hasn’t] been able to resolve real problems, like the country’s current economic crisis,” said Anabel Belloso, legislator for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Afraid of losing seats to disenchanted voters, she explained, the government is making an “electoral calculation” to maintain control and foreclose any paths for opposition gains at the ballot box.
Ruth López, head lawyer for Cristosal’s Justice and Anti-Corruption program, shared another important perspective. “[Bukele] needs to ensure that the institutions [that provide a counterweight to the president] don’t start working again and for this he needs total control of the Legislative Assembly,” she told CNN.
Beyond reducing the headcount in the legislature, the reform eliminates the assignment of legislative seats based on the “largest remainder” method for calculating proportional representation, which favors the participation of smaller parties. This will require a hurried electoral code reform to match, and experts argue the measure may still violate the constitution, which mandates proportional legislative representation.
Using electoral modeling based on the 2021 election results, analysts show that the new method grants Nuevas Ideas an even greater share of seats. Smaller parties could disappear altogether, representing a radical upending of the pluralism that El Salvador’s post-war political system protected for decades as a hedge against concentration of power. Furthermore, according to the latest surveys, the Salvadoran population wants to see multiple parties represented in the legislature.
Speaking to University of Central America radio, former Supreme Court magistrate Sydney Blanco raised the alarm about the broad-reaching impacts of the new system. “Democracy is not just that the majority participates and decides. Representative democracy goes much further than that and one of the central issues that the founders of the 1983 constitution considered was precisely to allow for the participation of minority opinions. Quashing relevant minorities is harmful for democracy and destroys pluralism. The Assembly represents the entire population and it’s important that opinions, the diversity of ideologies are heard. This is extremely serious.”
The municipal reforms
The second reform eliminates a full 83% of municipalities, under the pretext of reducing the budgetary burden of supporting city governments, though Bukele had already stripped them of their allocated national funding. His legislators gave their swift approval on June 13, slashing the number from 262 to 44.
Much as in the legislature, support for Bukele does not translate to members of his party at the level of local government. Bukele’s decision to strip municipalities of federal funds may have backfired. According to a recent editorial in the Diario CoLatino, “Bukele took away [federal funds] with the idea of wreaking havoc on the municipalities governed by the opposition, primarily the FMLN and ARENA. However, [many FMLN and ARENA municipalities], despite not having access to federal funds, were able to manage the basics in their communities, like trash removal, public lighting, and a small project here and there. Meanwhile, in the municipalities dominated by Nuevas Ideas, municipal administration up until now has been a disaster.”
While polling from the Francisco Gavidia University indicated that a majority of respondents supported the idea of reducing the number of seats in the legislature, where there has been a decades-long perception of bloated salaries and corruption, there was far less support for eliminating people’s towns altogether, with less than 40% in favor.
The eliminated municipalities will be converted into districts, represented by unelected managers appointed by the executive branch. There will be no changes to ID cards, birth certificates, or tax payments, and municipalities will still be obligated to meet their responsibilities under current contracts. The critical difference is that there will be no democratic, local-level elections in the districts. The changes upend the principle of municipal autonomy established under existing legislation.
Free and Fair?
The seismic changes come just nine months before the presidential and legislative elections in February 2024, followed by municipal and Central American Parliament elections in March.
On a practical level, primaries that were already underway within El Salvador’s political parties had to be canceled and redone. In many cases, the legal period for primary candidates to register had already closed. The chaos, in the end, is likely to benefit Bukele and his ruling Nuevas Ideas party, who can also count on the president’s outsized communications budget and propaganda operation in the upcoming campaign period.
But more broadly, popular movement organizations are raising concerns as to whether free and fair elections are even possible in the current context in El Salvador. Fundamental constitutional rights have been suspended since March 2022, resulting in widespread arbitrary detentions and thousands of documented human rights violations. Major areas in the country, including historic leftist strongholds, have been subjected to military enclosures in the name of fighting a “war on gangs”; the campus of the public University of El Salvador remains occupied by military tanks. Popular movement leaders, including union leaders and environmental defenders, journalists, and opposition political leaders face targeted persecution by the Bukele-aligned judicial system.
In a statement, the BRP warned that the reforms “foreclose on the possibility for free, democratic, and fair elections. The electoral process has been interrupted, the mid-term rules have been changed, the country's political system has been modified. It is not acceptable to exercise the right to vote in conditions of overwhelming disadvantage in the face of an authoritarian regime that violates human rights and particularly political rights: under a state of exception, arbitrary arrests, repression, political persecution, breakdown of the rule of law, and abuse in the use of state institutions and resources.”
The BRP called for unity among progressive forces to demand that the following conditions be met in order for elections to proceed, regardless of whether the Supreme Electoral Tribunal approves Bukele’s candidacy or not:
1. An end to the State of Exception, ensuring that elections are conducted with full respect for constitutional rights, that those detained are given a fair hearing and that those who are innocent are released;
2. The nullification of the recent municipal & legislative reforms;
3. The nullification of the resolution of the Constitutional Chamber that "enables" continuous reelection, categorically prohibited by the Constitution;
4. Neutrality of the State in the electoral process, especially of the armed forces and public security forces, intelligence agencies, general and electoral prosecutor's office, judicial system, and particularly the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and temporary agencies, guaranteeing their impartiality;
5. International observation of the entire process;
6. Audit and control by the Oversight Board, as well as compliance with the rules of propaganda and financing, including the payment of the political debt;
7. Facilitation of the registration of [opposition] candidacies.
Without these, they say, political parties and citizens alike must reconsider the possibility of proceeding with the 2024 elections.