Independence Day Marchers to Bukele: No Re-election, Not a Day Longer!


Broad opposition coalition rejects attacks on democracy and constitutional rights

On September 15, thousands of Salvadorans took to the streets to denounce president Nayib Bukele’s unconstitutional bid for re-election, recent reforms that eliminate over 80% of the country’s municipalities and almost a third of the legislators in the National Assembly, and the ongoing suspension of constitutional rights. The march served as a protest to the government’s official Independence Day celebrations amidst election season, with presidential, legislative, and municipal elections taking place in February and March of next year.

Four years into the Bukele Administration, a broad coalition of popular social movement and opposition groups, including the Popular Rebellion and Resistance Bloc (BRP), the National Alliance for Peace in El Salvador, and Joining Together for El Salvador (Sumar por El Salvador), called for the march, in the words of José Santos Melara, a leader of the National Alliance for Peace in El Salvador, “not just to celebrate democracy, but to defend it.”

Thousands attended the march, despite the Bukele administration’s usual attempts to hinder participation by limiting access with police checkpoints on highways leading into the capital from both east and west and shutting down roads throughout the capital. The meet-up point for the march also had to be changed the day before after the government announced a route for their military parade that conveniently interfered.

September 15, which marks the commemoration of the Central American Federation countries’ independence from Spain has, since 2021, become an annual day of action and street protests to denounce the Bukele administration’s policies. That year, in a series of growing protests, tens of thousands of people marched, largely in opposition to the recent adoption of Bitcoin as a national currency. According to an organizer with the BRP, the date has been widely adopted by all groups and sectors opposed to the administration's actions.

This year, central to the mobilization’s demands is a rejection of the erosion of democratic norms in the country, especially President Bukele’s re-election campaign, announced exactly one year ago, which is explicitly prohibited by multiple clauses in the Salvadoran Constitution. The reforms that eliminate 218 municipalities and 24 legislative seats are also being denounced by popular social movement groups and elections analysts in the country as an attempt to maintain the full political control that Bukele and his 'New Ideas Party' have over all the government of El Salvador and its institutions. These reforms follow a drastic reduction in funding for municipalities.

The country’s now indefinite State of Exception, instituted in March of last year, has also become central in street protests since it was first approved, and was again central at Friday’s march. The nation-wide suspension of basic constitutional protections and due process rights, promoted as a war on gangs, has resulted in making El Salvador the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 70,000 people have been arrested under the measure - and legal organizations in El Salvador estimate that nearly 20,000 of them have no ties to crime at all. Reports by human rights organizations have also detailed over 180 deaths, evidence of systematic torture, and a lack of basic services in the country’s prisons. The BPR has asserted that fair and free elections are not possible under this context.

Marchers represented a broad cross-section of El Salvador’s social movements. The Movement of Regime Victims (MOVIR), largely made up of family members of innocent people who have been detained under the State of Exception, had a large presence, holding banners and photos of their incarcerated loved ones. They were joined by groups of land defenders, small farmers, family members of political prisoners, and organized labor, who denounced increasing attacks on public workers and their unions.

A memo circulating on social media suggests that public employees, for example at the Social Service Institute, were pressured to join the government's parade on their day off, as their supervisor would be reporting their attendance. The municipality of Soyapango, some of whose workers have been imprisoned under the State of Exception, similarly pressured workers to support the pro-government parade.

Members of the Salvadoran diaspora and international supporters also gathered at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., echoing the demands of their counterparts in El Salvador. The gathering in D.C. comes after a recent visit to the area from high level legislators from the ruling Nuevas Ideas party, who were also met with opposition.

Back in San Salvador, the chants of marchers had to compete with the sounds of military helicopters and planes regularly flying overhead as part of the government’s Independence Day celebrations. Marchers turned their attention to the sky, in defiance of the government’s increasing authoritarianism, yelling “We are not afraid, Bukele!”

With the presidential, legislative, and municipal elections just 6 months away - and Bukele running again in violation of the constitution - various sectors of the opposition are not necessarily in agreement as to how to approach the question of the 2024 election, which many now describe as rigged, others as illegitimate. But the march was a powerful display of unity amongst the popular social movements. The BPR calls on these movements to unite in a broad front that “transcends electoral battles, seeks the downfall of the dictatorship and the establishment of a democratic government in service of its people, that works towards peace with social justice, without political prisoners, without political persecution, without arbitrary arrests, with just salaries and pensions; a government that guarantees the most fundamental rights for its people.”

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