The threats of President Nayib Bukele against the Legislative Assembly, or Salvadoran Congress, his polemical call for an “extraordinary session” to approve a spending bill, as well as his warning that he would charge legislators with unconstitutional conduct if they didn’t attend, lay bare Bukele’s method of exercising power: start with coercion, and then move to force.
Along with his irresponsible call for popular insurrection if legislators do not abide by his desires, that he is willing to remove dissenting legislators or entirely dissolve Congress if the body doesn’t bow to his will, underscores the fact that the current President of the Republic wants to govern without the restraints of an independent legislative branch. Even if these threats do not become a reality, they are a grave affront to our republican system, to the independence of separate branches of the government, and to peace of society. The alarm bells of anyone defending democracy in El Salvador should be ringing.
Establishing the precedent of Bukele appealing to Article 167 of the Constitution—which permits the convocation of an extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly— is plainly absurd. To allow the passing of a spending bill suffice to be motive for the Executive to use constitutional clauses reserved for exceptional circumstances would be to hand over to the President of the Republic the power to convene the Assembly and dictate to them his agenda whenever he feels like it. In the end, all of the matters submitted to the Assembly are, in theory, of national interest, and the majority of laws and policies the country needs passed are of relative urgency.
It’s a matter of debate if the congress acted responsibly or not in not voting on the spending bill for the president’s 3rd phase of his security plan. But this discussion takes the back seat in light of Nayib Bukele’s incendiary actions and words.
The swiftness with which once more Bukele has demonstrated the powers of the police and the Army at his service goes far beyond the typical use of popular support he wields to discredit any form of criticism or intimidate his adversaries. Without a doubt, to publicly insult his opponents is an abuse of presidential power, but it becomes something much more disturbing and dangerous when his insults immediately precede an order to revoke personal security teams from all members of the Assembly, as occured on Friday night.
The president has the authority to use the legal resources at his disposal to advance his political agenda, which is what the majority of citizens voted for. What the president does not have the authority to do is sow divisions, threaten legislators with public lynchings, threaten the Assembly with scoldings, call for insurrection, or use public security forces and the Army to further his own interests. To find the entrance to the Assembly surrounded by soldiers blocking access to journalists, as took place on Saturday afternoon, while other soldiers were erecting a platform where Bukele sought to advance his interests surrounded by a mass of sympathizers is a call back to an earlier period of Central American, an era in which the Army was a tool of political and economic interests instead of the protector of national sovereignty.
Certainly it is not the first time since the Peace Accords—the 1992 pact that ended more than a decade of bloody Civil War—that tensions have flared between branches of the government. The last affront to the division of powers was instigated by rightwing legislators who, with the complicity of the FMLN party and headed by the former head of the Assembly—the fugitive Sigfrido Reyes—sought to feign ignorance of the law and remove judges they didn’t like from the Constitutional Chamber. Luckily, they failed to achieve their aims.
Today, as the government’s division of power is again under threat, we must call for sanity, for the clear and public announcement from all politicians and all of Salvadoran civil society, that when the balance of powers and the system of checks and balances is in jeopardy, petty political differences must be set aside. We must call out excesses of power. We must reaffirm pluralism and settle our differences through established institutional channels.
In just nine months in power, Bukele has shown multiple worrying signs that steer his administration away from commitments to democracy and the constitutional separation of powers. His insistence—beginning during his campaign and ever more loudly once in office—of proclaiming himself as the redeemer of the party system and the only leader of a new era of politics, should concern us all, should drive us to call out any further steps in that direction. His popularity, which he leans on to threaten, defame, pressure, or punish critics and opposition members—whether they be politicians, business owners, journalists, or analysts—is quickly turning into populism.
In light of these recent events, we call for voices of calm and respect, as well as a commitment to the defence of a country in which dissent thrives along with order. Salvadoran society is a fragile democracy that needs to be reinforced, not torn down. It is in this same democracy, and in the strength of its institutions, that allowed Nayib Bukele to reach the office of the presidency. If he does not defend this country and its institutions, the citizens should take up that mantle with their words, with their participation, and with their criticism. We do not want any more coups against democracy.