Electoral Court Approves Bukele's Reelection Candidacy, Lone Dissenter Decries Widespread Intimidation

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On November 3, after El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) voted to approve his bid for reelection, sitting President Nayib Bukele took to Twitter to characterize his candidacy as “legal” and “without objection.” What lies beyond Bukele’s celebratory propaganda is an environment of intimidation and fear among the TSE magistrates and a series of formal petitions submitted by civil society groups and individuals that urged the magistrates to reject Bukele’s application on the basis of at least six articles of the Salvadoran constitution that prohibit consecutive presidential terms. This is the first time since the creation of the TSE in 1991 that a sitting president has submitted an application for reelection and the first time since the reelections of then military dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in the fraudulent elections of 1935, 1939, and 1944.

Two days before the TSE voted to approve Nayib Bukele’s unconstitutional candidacy for reelection, Julio Olivo, the only one of five magistrates to abstain from the vote, publicly shared that there is an environment of fear among his colleagues. In an interview broadcast on the TVX television station, he spoke candidly about political repercussions he has faced in the months leading up to presidential and legislative elections scheduled for February 4, 2024.

During the interview, Olivo noted that he and his colleagues faced considerable pressure to approve Bukele’s application to compete as the Nuevas Ideas’ (New Ideas) party presidential candidate. Perhaps most significantly, Olivo pointed to a reform to the country’s electoral fraud law that Bukele’s allies in the Legislative Assembly passed earlier this year. The reform defined “impeding the lawfully permitted registration of a candidate” as a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Olivo, a former dean of the School of Law and Social Sciences of the University of El Salvador, suggested that a TSE magistrate’s vote against Bukele’s candidacy could be enough to warrant arrest by the Bukele-aligned Attorney General under the new law.

Referring to the Attorney General’s office, Olivo asks “Would they come to carry out an arrest based on a vote that [a TSE magistrate] casts? How would you vote if you knew it could land you in prison for 15 years?” Two days later, Olivo abstained, rather than voting against the Bukele’s candidacy.

Beyond the legal threats, Olivo reminded the audience that the Attorney General has failed to complete an investigation following a 2020 protest carried out by supporters of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party in which the protestors locked TSE magistrates in their office building to pressure them to allow their candidates to register. He also spoke of receiving regular death threats that the Attorney General’s office has not investigated and described experiences of prejudicial treatment from other government institutions, such as the Ministry of Finance.

Olivo, who joined the TSE as an appointee of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party and served as its president from 2014 - 2019, has gained notoriety for being the lone TSE voice against Bukele’s consolidation of power. During the interview, he illustrated his isolation within the TSE by exposing a fellow magistrate, Luis Guillermo Wellman Carpio, who has declared that he will not vote against Bukele’s government in any matter that comes before the TSE, a position to which Wellman is so committed that he gave Olivo permission to repeat it on television.

Olivo’s decision to speak out against Bukele’s candidacy has placed him at great risk in an increasingly authoritarian state that has already criminalized political opponents, activists, and environmentalists. His closing remarks, in addition to warning about the erosion of democratic norms that are giving rise to a dictatorship, were addressed to his young daughter. “I want to apologize to my daughter for the risks that I must take, especially if, one day, that means that she is also forced to sacrifice for the role that her father has played.”

El Salvador’s Constitution explicitly prohibits consecutive presidential terms. However, in 2021, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber issued a dubious opinion intended to give a veneer of legitimacy to Bukele’s anticipated reelection bid. Bukele’s legislative allies had illegally installed the Chamber’s magistrates months prior, on May 1, 2021, in a late-night session that Salvadoran popular social movements and international organizations widely decried as a judicial coup, including rebukes from the U.S. Embassy and Vice President Harris.

Leading up to Bukele’s official application to register as a candidate, individuals and representatives of diverse sectors of Salvadoran society ranging from lawyers, social movement groups, collectives of Salvadorans living abroad, and opposition political parties have submitted open letters and formal petitions to the TSE, calling on the magistrates to reject Bukele’s application; others have been submitted following the vote, calling on the TSE to nullify its decision. According to representatives from the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc, “The Constitution is clear. There are several articles of the Magna Carta that prohibit continuous reelection. However, in spite of that literal prohibition stated in the Constitution, [Bukele] came to register."

In an open letter dated October 30, groups and collectives of Salvadorans living abroad also called for the annulment of the Bukele’s registration, expressing their support for “the social movement groups in El Salvador, which are led by peasants, youth organizations, unfairly dismissed workers, innocent victims of the emergency regime, legal professionals, and civil society groups, who are also raising their voice” to reject Bukele’s candidacy as unconstitutional.

For its part, the Biden Administration has changed its tune, choosing now to put its weight behind Bukele’s candidacy, ignoring widespread denunciations from civil society, attorneys, and constitutional scholars. In an interview following the TSE’s vote to approve Bukele’s unconstitutional candidacy, U.S. Ambassador William Duncan celebrated the Bukele administration for promoting U.S. foreign investment, and said he did not foresee any political uncertainty arising from the upcoming electoral process.

This statement came on the heels of Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Brian A. Nichols’ meeting with Bukele at the presidential palace in the days ahead of his inscription. Nichols’ comments on Twitter and to the press after the meeting echoed Bukele’s narrative that this is a matter that can be decided at the polls and showed the U.S.’ clear support for Bukele moving forward.

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The Feminist Assembly protests electoral fraud with pots and pans on Monday night in San Salvador (photo: YSUCA Radio)