Joint Statement on Bukele Stepping Down as President of El Salvador

Press Release

International Organizations Echo Salvadoran Civil Society: Bukele Stepping Down as President Does Nothing to Change the Unconstitutionality of his Reelection Bid

In response to President Bukele’s November 30 announcement that he would step down as president while he pursued his campaign to remain in office in the upcoming February 4, 2024 elections, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador (CISPES) and Hope Border Institute released the following statement:    

“President Bukele asking Congress for a leave of absence is a move designed to give the illusion that he is complying with the Salvadoran Constitution. But as we have been hearing from legal experts and partners on the ground, nothing could be further from the truth, as the Constitution is unequivocal in prohibiting consecutive reelection.

President Bukele’s actions, combined with widespread human rights violations, political persecution, and suspension of basic rights under the ongoing State of Exception, and recent electoral reforms that limit local representation and the power of opposition parties, lead us to conclude that the 2024 electoral process cannot, currently, meet the internationally recognized standards for free, fair, and democratic elections.

Given that President Bukele has complete control of all branches of government and no public institution will challenge him, it is telling that he is attempting to give his reelection bid a veneer of legality at all. Making it seem like this election will be a true expression of democracy as opposed to the formal consolidation of a dictatorship is a trap that the international community must not fall into.

It’s hard to imagine any democratic government saying that a president’s popularity should give them permission to remain in office if doing so is prohibited. And yet, this is the message the international community is sending by remaining silent. 

As organizations based in the United States, we are extremely concerned by indications that the Biden administration, which claims to respect the separation of powers and the rule of law, appears willing to look the other way regarding President Bukele’s unconstitutional participation in the upcoming elections.

We encourage the U.S. and all international governments and organizations to listen to civil society organizations in El Salvador who have made clear that unless rulings and policies intended to further consolidate the Bukele’s power are reversed, including the controversial 2021 Supreme Court opinion giving the president the green light to seek reelection, the Salvadoran people will not be able to exercise their right to a truly democratic election.”

Background:

Constitutional scholars and legal organizations in El Salvador point to no fewer than six articles in the Salvadoran constitution which expressly prohibit consecutive presidential terms, including articles 75, 88, 131, 152, 154, and 248. The principle of alternance in power is so fundamental to El Salvador’s democracy that article 75 requires the stripping of citizenship rights for those who “[promote] the reelection or continuation of the President of the Republic,” while article 88 states: “The alternation in the exercise of the Presidency of the Republic is indispensable for the preservation of the form of government and political system that has been established. The violation of this rule mandates insurrection.”

However, in September 2021, Supreme Court magistrates –illegally imposed by Bukele’s supermajority in the Legislative Assembly–issued a widely-contested opinion intended to provide a veneer of legitimacy to his potential reelection. In their ruling, the magistrates offered that Bukele could be re-elected as long as he stepped down six months prior to the start of the next term, homing in on the following phrase in Article 152, paragraph 1: “The following people may not be candidates for President of the Republic: 1.- Those who have served as President of the Republic … within the last six months prior to the beginning of the presidential term…” and ignoring the other articles that explicitly prohibit consecutive presidential terms. This interpretation marked a dramatic reversal of decades of precedent, under which no Salvadoran president has sought a consecutive term.

Multiple Salvadoran civil society and legal organizations submitted petitions to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), El Salvador's electoral authority, to disqualify Bukele’s candidacy in light of constitutional violations. Nevertheless, four of the five magistrates voted to approve his bid on November 6, raising questions as to whether the current TSE can exert independent authority over the coming electoral process. TSE magistrate and former Law School Dean at the University of El Salvador, Julio Olivo, who abstained from the vote, described to Salvadoran press the environment of fear and intimidation he and his fellow magistrates face, including that he regularly receives death threats which he said the Attorney General has not investigated. Referring to a reform to the electoral code that Bukele’s party approved in January 2023 that made “impeding the lawfully permitted registration of a candidate” as a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison, Olivo asked, rhetorically, “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 fifteen years?”

Previously approved laws also weakened judicial independence.

Despite Bukele’s widely-touted popularity, protests by environmental defenders, family members of victims of arbitrary arrest and political persecution, public sector workers who have been illegally fired, labor unions unlawfully stripped of their credentials, and rural communities at risk of being displaced from their lands have remained constant since September 15, 2021, when massive protests erupted in the capital to oppose the installation of a dictatorship.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Brian A. Nichols traveled to El Salvador in October 2023 to meet with President Bukele in the days before he formally registered his candidacy. During a press conference, Secretary Nichols largely sidestepped the question of the constitutionality of Bukele’s reelection, framing it as a matter of debate to be decided at the polls, a marked shift in tone from the State Department’s earlier “condemnation” of the Supreme Court’s ruling for “clearly contradicting the Salvadoran constitution which establishes that immediate reelection is not permitted.”

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Media contact, including to schedule interviews with civil society and social movement organizations in El Salvador: Alexis Stoumbelis, CISPES, [email protected] (202) 521-2510 ext. 205


For additional background on the May 2021 judicial coup:
• Due Process of Law Foundation report, Muzzled Justice. Available here.

For additional background on the 2021 Constitutional Chamber ruling
• Cristosal report, Legal Analysis of the Principle of Alternance in the Exercise of the Presidency. Available here in Spanish.

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