Changing the Course in Light of the Bukele Phenomenon

There is a lot to do over the next five years. Civil society must exert every effort to restore democratic order and transparency in state affairs. Social movements and foreign governments have crucial roles to play in this endeavor.

By Diego Arguello

English translation by Yenni Castro (Valestra Editorial)

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele has been elected for a second term in an unconstitutional election involving illegalities and irregularities.

The country's constitution prohibits, among other examples, consecutive presidential re-election in six articles. President Bukele's administration changed the electoral process rules outside the established period; there were modifications in the method of vote tabulation and in the number of deputies and municipalities. Those changes favored the official party, which during the campaign advertised for itself and its candidates with state resources. The Ministry of Finance did not pay the political debt to the parties, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE, by its Spanish acronym) proved to be biased and inefficient, the overseas voting was conducted under official supervision with minimal control, and there was a notable lack of transparency in the disclosureof results.

The president and his circle have significantly damaged democracy and the country's institutionality. As the vice-presidential candidate clearly stated: "we are going to destroy democracy." Control over all three branches of government and the TSE, along with the disappearance or transformation of key public institutions and laws, raises the most serious concerns. Some examples of the latter are enacting an almost permanent state of exception, using public procurement laws to concentrate state contracts and reduce transparency, merging social programs or institutions into agencies controlled by the executive branch, eliminating citizen participation in the state’s affairs, irresponsibly using public finances, and major human rights violations. These factors collectively affirm that the February 2024 elections were a foretold fraud.

Factors Surrounding the Triumph

Despite these issues, Nayib Bukele won with results that confirm his great popularity among Salvadorans. According to the TSE he obtained 82.7% of the valid votes. There was a high abstention rate of 49%. This implies that he won with 42% of the potential votes.

Nayib Bukele's popularity can be attributed to various key factors, with only one that is not contingent on the president and his team: the weakening of opposition parties and their failure as leaders. This situation enabled Bukele to categorize them collectively with a phrase that initially garnered significant support: "the same old folks."

Additional factors contributing to his popularity include the remarkable, widespread, and effective use of communication channels, particularly social media. The "bread and circuses" concept also played a role, with limited "bread" represented by the distribution of food baskets in the days leading up to the election. However, there was a substantial amount of "circus" in the months preceding the elections, marked by events such as the celebration of the Central American Games, the Miss Universe contest, the visit of soccer player Lionel Messi to the country, and the inauguration of various public works, among others.

Other significant factors include the repression and infringement on the human rights of purported criminals and delinquents, opposition journalists, and officials who resisted collaboration. Moreover, explicit and implicit support from various foreign governments, including China, and other less visible administrations that have refrained from condemning violations to the Constitution and laws, adopting a "carrot and stick" policy, have further exacerbated the situation.

Citizen security

However, the primary factor driving the popularity of the Bukele administration has been delivering results that address the most pressing needs of the population: security. For the first time in decades, the population feels that a government is doing something about the violence that affected almost all of society. It has achieved this by negotiating, in an illicit and hidden way, with gang leaders. This is illegal because a government cannot negotiate with "terrorist groups" and it is unsustainable because it is done without informing the citizens. But it would be even more impossible with their participation, because of the burden that would be keeping 72,000 additional detained people without proper judicial trail for decades, and the risk that they will revolt - as has already happened in other countries - against a pact that was also not consulted with them. The most critical concern is that this process lacks a structural solution to the problem; instead, it merely represses it. It fails to address the structural underlying causes, especially the problem of poverty, which has increased by more than five percentage points during his administration.


What should be done?


In light of the upcoming five additional years of a populist government wielding nearly absolute power and displaying a clear intent to cling to power at any cost, even if it means dismantling democratic institutions, it is imperative to reflect on the necessary actions. Bukele has significantly weakened the state's finances, pushing the public debt to over 80% of the GDP, and exacerbated the issue by adding over 72 thousand new prisoners, leaving their future and that of their families uncertain.

There is a lot to do over the next five years. Civil society must exert every effort to restore democratic order and transparency in state affairs. Social movements and foreign governments have crucial roles to play in this endeavor. Civil society organizations and the media must educate the population about their rights and obligations in a clear and accessible manner. People's constitutional and human rights must be restored, especially for those deprived of liberty and freedom of expression. It is necessary to fight for the independence of the judiciary, and, given the insufficient number of judges, it is necessary to hire many more to submit to judicial process the detained people and to conduct impartial trials in order to free the innocent and safeguard the rights of the incarcerated. The Armed Forces should resume and restrict their duties to the role defined for them in the Peace Agreements (1992). Political parties and opposition voices must be strengthened, while ensuring respect for their rights.

Public finances, particularly the debt, must be manage without affecting, but rather the opposite, the poor and most excluded sectors of society. Multilateral lending agencies, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the governments that control it must be clear and emphatic: governance must be carried out bearing in mind that El Salvador must preserve democracy and be governed with a perspective of social justice. Reducing poverty with democracy is the country's priority, and its future depends on it.

About the Author

The author is the director of a non-governmental organization (NGO) and a university professor in El Salvador. Diego Arguello is a pseudonym.

Join our Newsletter

This article is included in the 16th edition of our newsletter. To receive the next issue in your email, click here.



Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung en Colombia

Calle 71 N° 11-90
Bogotá DC - Colombia

+57 (1) 347 3077

Síguenos en

Canal de Youtube