“The constitution doesn’t allow the same person to be president twice in a row. They can be president 80 times, if they’d like, but not in a row.” Those aren’t the words of the Salvadoran opposition, but of President Nayib Bukele himself, in a 2013 television interview.
Over three years into his presidency, he has announced he will seek to do just that: hold executive office for consecutive terms, at least through 2029.
“I’d like to announce to the Salvadoran people that I’ve decided to run as a candidate for the presidency of the republic,' said the head of state.
He made the announcement in a televised broadcast on September 15, El Salvador’s 201st anniversary of independence. He has attempted to rebrand the date as marking the country’s “true independence,” a reference to his insistence that the United States and others in the international community are working to impose agendas on his government.
It was an open secret that Bukele has planned to seek reelection. His allies have been calling for it constantly for the past year.
“We charted our own destiny and didn’t obey the international dictates,” the president said in last night’s speech. “El Salvador is now making its own decisions. That’s been made clear to all.”
The constitution prohibits immediate reelection in three separate articles. “The presidential period shall be of five years...without the person who exercised the Presidency able to continue in their functions one day more,” says article 154.
Article 248 expressly prohibits amendments to “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the Republic.”
Article 88 says: “The principle of alternation in the office of the Presidency of the Republic is indispensable for the maintenance of the established form of government and political system. Violation of this norm makes insurrection an obligation.”
“Why can't we copy countries where things are going well? Reelections are prohibited in third-world countries. What a coincidence,” said Bukele in his announcement speech. “The people should have the right to reject or approve of the course it is on,” he added. “Why discard the path if it’s working?”
“Will of the people”
Despite the prohibition, Constitutional Chamber magistrates illegally instated at Bukele’s order in May, 2021, at Bukele’s order, ruled in September, 2021, in favor of his reelection.
The court argued that “tying down the will of the people to a text that answered to needs, context, or circumstances from 20, 30, or 40 years ago is no longer a rights-based interpretation, but rather an excessive restriction disguised as legal certainty.”
That argument, that barring presidential reelection infringes on the rights of the public, comes close to the one used by the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice in clearing the way for the illegal 2017 reelection of Juan Orlando Hernández.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal also announced last year that it would uphold the decision permitting Bukele to run for reelection, “should the president want to do so.”
“If he registers as a candidate, a crude electoral fraud will be consummated,” tweeted Salvadoran constitutional expert José Marinero on Thursday, adding, “Without checks on political power, the announcement of a reelection bid is really a declaration: ‘I’m staying in power because I want to and because I can.”
Three years into his term, he has maintained high levels of public support — 87 percent in May. Politicians in Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Chile have expressed admiration for Bukele or promised to emulate his style of governance — and, most recently, his security strategy.
Earlier in the day, thousands gathered in San Salvador to protest Bukele’s consolidation of control over the judiciary and executive and a six-month state of exception that has suspended multiple constitutional rights and been marred by reports of grave human rights abuses amid mass arrests. It’s the second year in a row for the Independence Day demonstrations.
The government organized marches of soldiers and police officers, as well counter-manifestations including other public sector employees.
The prohibition on reelection is part of the constitution of most Latin American countries, bearing special importance in a region that has suffered through decades of military dictatorships.
In El Salvador, the provision first appeared in 1841, was reaffirmed in 1886, 1950, 1962, and as part of the current Constitution of 1983.
The United States expressly condemned the Constitutional Chamber’s decision last year, and the interim U.S. ambassador compared Bukele to Hugo Chávez. Amid the wait for other countries to weigh in, the State Department doesn’t think the international community will view Bukele’s reelection as a matter of “internal affairs.”