El Salvador / Politics

Bukele Cuts 30% of Assembly Seats and 83% of Mayors Months Before Elections

Eight months before the elections, President Nayib Bukele announced last night that the 262 Salvadoran municipalities will be cut to 44 and the 84-seat legislature to 60. In his prime-time speech marking four years in power, he also announced the seizure of ex-president Alfredo Cristiani’s assets on unknown charges.

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Friday, June 2, 2023
Nelson Rauda Zablah

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Election season has officially begun in El Salvador. The day after the announcement of the first opposition presidential ticket, Bukele did away with 70 percent of publicly-elected positions locally and nationally.

In a solemn address to the Legislative Assembly to commemorate his fourth year in office, he announced bills to reduce the number of municipalities to 44, meaning the elimination of 218 mayoral races. He also announced the reduction of 24 seats in the Legislative Assembly to 60, which was how things were in 1991.

The changes are to be implemented with eight months left before voting and with political parties' internal elections underway.

Bukele has argued efficiency. “We won’t have 262 mayors and municipal councils, nor their managers, positions of trust, assistants or assistants to the assistants,” the president said.

He also pointed to the corruption of some mayors as a reason to enforce the change, the same argument he used in 2021 to purge a third of the country’s judges, which allowed him a majority takeover of the Judicial Branch. In his speech on Thursday night, he referred to the judges’ removal as a “cleansing.”

For the Legislative Assembly, he pointed to the number of seats before what he has called the “fake” 1992 Peace Accords. “Arena and FMLN added those seats to ensure their friends a position without losing theirs,” the president said.

Guests in the Assembly cheered during Bukele
Guests in the Assembly cheered during Bukele's speech and chanted for his reelection. Bukele didn't broach his campaign but stopped to acknowledge the shouts and signs from his fans. Photo Carlos Barrera

The reduction of municipalities has been the subject of a technical discussion for decades. Different administrations since the 90s explored the idea, but never followed through. Now, the timing raises suspicions about electoral motives.

The announcement comes barely 24 hours after Virginia-based lawyer Luis Parada and historic human rights advocate Celia Medrano announced their bid to lead a unified opposition ticket against Bukele with party Nuestro Tiempo. El Faro revealed the candidacies of Parada —who Bukele praised in 2018 for saving El Salvador millions of dollars in international arbitrage— and Medrano ten days ago.

The opposition alliance had set a goal of 30 seats at the next Legislative Assembly, currently enough to limit the scope of the ruling party’s two-thirds supermajority. The reduction means that more votes will be needed to guarantee any seat.

Andy Failer, president of Nuestro Tiempo, reacted: “any change to the electoral system, less than a year away from the elections, answers to one thing only: fear.”

Gerrymandered races

Eliminating 83 percent of mayors benefits Bukele in perhaps the only front where he has underperformed. Polling shows that more than half of the country would like to change its mayor, a cold shower to Bukele since his party won 150 city hall races in 2021.

“Municipal back pay has become the norm under the Bukele administration,” as we wrote in our March 8 newsletter, after Bukele cut from 8 to 1.5 the percent of the national budget earmark to mayors.

The municipal reduction would “not only increase centralization but also accentuate inequalities and territories' own dynamics,” according to Rommy Jiménez, a teacher in the Central American University’s Masters of Territorial Development Program.

“Bukele will limit the power of those in which he has little public approval and merge them with districts where his Nuevas Ideas party has more support,” said Ana Méndez, Central America director at WOLA. “This aims to do away with electoral transparency, concentrate power, and ultimately undermine democracy,” she added.

Nayib Bukele gave his fourth-anniversary speech in a solemn session at the Legislative Assembly with the presidents of the other two branches of government in attendance: Ernesto Castro, Bukele
Nayib Bukele gave his fourth-anniversary speech in a solemn session at the Legislative Assembly with the presidents of the other two branches of government in attendance: Ernesto Castro, Bukele's former private secretary and current head of the Assembly, and Oscar Lopez Jerez, imposed as Supreme Court President by Bukele's party in May 2021. Photo Carlos Barrera

This is just the latest in a series of recent changes to the electoral system to favor Bukele.

In August 2022, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal split the presidential from the mayoral election: Whereas the presidential and congressional races will be held on February 4, the mayoral and Central American Parliament contests are set for March 3.

Last October, his party approved out-of-country electronic voting despite widespread criticism of the lack of safeguards for online voting.

In March, lawmakers eliminated an article that forbade the change of electoral rules a year before the elections, paving the way to last night’s announcement.

In April, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) allowed a Bukele-allied party to register to compete despite not fulfilling legal requirements.

Not to mention the fact that the Constitutional Court and TSE have blessed his run for a second term in office despite a constitutional prohibition.

Last night, guests at the Legislative Assembly for the speech sported Bukele 2024 hats and signs calling for him to stay in power. The Constitution says that anyone calling for presidential reelection should lose citizenship rights.

Punishment on live TV

Bukele’s final flourish in what should’ve been his last anniversary speech as president was to reveal a law enforcement operation —in real time— to seize the assets of Alfredo Cristiani, the last of the living Salvadoran presidents who hadn’t been indicted.

Cristiani, the one who negotiated and signed the Peace Accords in 1992 to close the 12 years-long civil war, is at the same time a symbol of the old oligarchy and neoliberal policies, including the privatization of banks and other public companies in the early 90's.

Bukele next announced a “war against corruption,” two years after expelling the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIES). He dismantled the commission —whose installation was a key campaign promise— after it began looking into his own administration’s gang negotiations, pandemic graft, and other corruption schemes.

The operation against Cristiani, the supposed face of this new enemy, also pointed to the lack of separation of powers in El Salvador: It was the president, not the Attorney General, who announced the action, as if it had been ordered by Casa Presidencial. The accusations against Cristiani aren’t clear.

The choreography ended with the cameras of the public television network raiding Cristiani’s properties together with the police. Bukele mentioned in his speech the former president's “Santa Elena mansion, his Coatepeque lakehouse, and Santa Lucía drugstore.” Later, the AG’s office said they seized properties worth an estimated $10.6 million.

Bukele closed his appearance by announcing an operation that was being carried out in real time by the Attorney General
Bukele closed his appearance by announcing an operation that was being carried out in real time by the Attorney General's Office in yet another sign of how lines of judicial independence have been blurred in El Salvador. Photo Carlos Barrera

The broadcast of his speech showed senior officials and ruling party legislators clapping at several moments, including the president’s promise to prosecute corrupt actors.

Minister of Health Francisco Alabí —who during the pandemic bought $225,000 of medical supplies from a company run by his family— was shown cheering. Press Secretary Ernesto Sanabria, publicly questioned by Bukele’s security advisor Alejandro Muyshondt for his luxury shopping a couple of weeks ago, was in the shot.

Not pictured were Vice Minister of Security Osiris Luna, who embezzled $1.6 Million in Covid-19 emergency food supplies, or Bukele’s chief of cabinet, Carolina Recinos, who the U.S. Treasury named “head of a multiple-ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme.

It would appear, unofficially, that the 2024 campaign has begun.

This article appeared in the June 2 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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