A projector churned out five minutes of ghoulish footage: common graves, bloodied child cadavers, people crying, and gang members hacking at victims with machetes. It was the evening of last Saturday, September 9, and some 500 people, including families with small children, had gathered at Victory Christian Ministries in Woodbridge, Virginia, for a meeting with Salvadoran Legislative Assembly President Ernesto Castro.
“This was everyday life in El Salvador,” Castro told the congregants. Yells of “death penalty,” “put them away for good,” and “reelection” inundated the room. A line of 16 other legislators from the ruling party Nuevas Ideas had filed onto the auditorium stage, but Castro alone addressed the crowd in a nearly three-hour monologue.
He shouted epithets against the oligarchy, traditional parties, and “corrupt judges” —”we cleaned out the Constitutional Chamber, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Judicial System,” he said— and underscored the reduction of gang presence and state of exception as the chief achievements after the Bukele administration’s four-year mark.
“We [legislators] come and go, but our President Nayib Bukele needs your support,” he said, asking attendees to vote for any Nuevas Ideas legislative candidate they choose, in order to provide Bukele “governability”.
The electoral campaign has not legally begun in El Salvador, but tomorrow, Central American Independence Day, marks one year since Bukele announced his unconstitutional bid for reelection, drawing scant local and international resistance despite signs that he will seek to perpetuate himself in power.
The ruling party Nuevas Ideas concluded in July its internal primary with only one competitor, the president. The primary in and of itself violated the Constitution, which establishes in article 75 the loss of political rights for the “promotion or support of the reelection or continuation of the President of the Republic.” Article 23 of the Law of Political Parties “prohibits political parties from: a. Promoting consecutive presidential reelection.”
“Permanence in power is an indispensable element of his [Bukele’s] political project,” says Katya Salazar, director of the Due Process of Law Foundation. “Like in Nicaragua in 2009 and Bolivia in 2017, it was a high court that, responding to the Executive Branch, offered an absurd interpretation of national and international law to permit the sitting president’s reelection.”
“To indicate by every means possible that immediate reelection is permitted is to manipulate public opinion and to lie. The government is lying,” wrote the Human Rights Institute of Central American University (IDHUCA) in a July 18 editorial. “A democratic election can only be achieved if those interested in competing for the presidency respect the limits set by the Constitution and the law.”
Law of silence
The control that Bukele wields on every branch of government prevents legal texts from limiting him. He also leads the latest polls with around 68 percent of expected voters.
Civil society’s push for opposition parties to adopt a joint ticket has clearly fallen apart: Arena, the FMLN, Nuestro Tiempo, and Fuerza Solidaria —a party recently emerged from a rift in the Bukele-aligned Gana party— will run their own candidates. None of them has garnered five percent, while 9.9 and 9.2 percent said they would abstain or cast null ballots, respectively.
Perhaps these numbers explain the resignation of the international community, who seem open to sweeping under the rug their prior criticism of Bukele’s abuses of power and ready to legitimate his eventual reelection on February 4.
This week, the U.K. Ambassador called a “privilege” his meeting with Bukele, as part of a round of “meetings with presidential candidates,” implying that they are not objecting.
The Biden administration seems to be charting the same course. In September 2021, the State Department unequivocally stated that reelection in El Salvador is unconstitutional and “undermines democracy.” But in the last two years, senior White House officials shifted to a position of non-commitment, and the United States’ April 2023 “country strategy” plan called the ban on reelection an “apparent prohibition.”
“That ship [reelection] has already sailed,” a Biden official told El Faro English. Bukele’s popularity factored into the decision to tone down public hostilities with San Salvador.
This week El Faro English asked the State Department to clarify whether they maintain their 2021 position. An official responded: “The United States respects free and fair elections. Only the people of El Salvador have the right to determine their elected representatives. We respect their right to determine their own future through their legal and constitutional processes, consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
The Inter-American Charter reference could be interpreted as a punt of the matter to the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has cited the Charter in repeated sessions this year condemning election interference in Guatemala.
When pressed on the fact that their response did not answer the question, the State Department answered: “We do not have anything further to share at this time.”
“It’s becoming clear that Bukele will remain president of El Salvador,” Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told El Faro English. “I think the Biden administration is accepting that reality and figuring, ‘We’ve gotta deal with him, so let’s walk some of these comments back.’”
McGovern says he is worried about that silence. “The international community and the Biden administration should continue to raise issues about constitutional integrity, election integrity, democracy and a slide toward authoritarianism, and human rights at every chance they get,” he added. “It’s important that people who care about human rights not be intimidated by Bukele’s social media.”
The probability for the elections to take place under a nearly two-year state of exception that has suspended constitutional rights appears to have already been normalized.
In a Tuesday press conference on the 19th extension of the state of exception, Minister of Defense René Merino tied in the elections: “Some presidential candidates have expressed that they will negotiate with the gangs in order for this to end,” he said, sidestepping the proof that Bukele did so himself. “This measure will continue until El Salvador is totally free from delinquency.”
That same day, U.S. Ambassador William Duncan said the Salvadoran government “must respect the due process of law. This is what is lacking now in the state of exception.” In the same fell swoop, he announced the donation of two helicopter motors to the Salvadoran Armed Forces.
Sweden, an influential anti-corruption backer in Central America, did not respond to a request for comment on their stance on reelection in El Salvador. The usually under-the-radar France —which has become a frequent defender of the electoral results in Guatemala amid an attempted electoral coup— in the case of El Salvador deferred to the E.U., which has yet to respond to a formal request for comment on the constitutional issue.
International outcry had little impact in the 2021 elections in Nicaragua when the opposition was dismantled by arrests and annulment. International anti-corruption cooperation in Honduras hangs in the balance amid local partisan interference. But in Guatemala this year, coordinated international pressure from the OAS, United States, and European Union has been key thus far to averting an electoral coup.
Will international observers make a dent?
On February 4 the legislative elections will be held alongside the presidential. A month later, on March 3, voters will choose their mayors and the Central American Parliament. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), a total of 6.8 million Salvadorans are registered to vote, 11 percent of whom live in the United States.
But it is impossible to know how many people will be actually allowed to vote in U.S. territory, in just one of many shadows over the integrity of the elections. Under new legislation aimed at facilitating suffrage in the diaspora, those abroad will cast ballots online and they can do so using an expired passport or ID. In some countries, then, the number of votes could actually surpass the total of voters registered as residents there.
Votes from abroad will now also go toward electing legislators in San Salvador, concentrating Bukele’s diaspora popularity in the district with the most seats up for grabs.
While those with documents issued in El Salvador must approach a consulate on election day, those with registered addresses abroad will have a four-week window to vote from their phones starting January 6. Sources in the TSE admit that “there’s no technical reason” for the distinction and express concerns over how the month-long voting period “expands the window for hacking efforts.”
Adding to the global security doubts regarding internet-based voting, in June La Prensa Gráfica reported that all but one contractor had abandoned the TSE’s call for bids to implement the online voting system, citing a “lack of real competition” and “lack of time to fulfill the contract.”
The issue of narrow government-defined timetables for ambitious technology projects is not unlike the language used in U.S. court by a former private contractor to describe the development of Chivo Wallet. The state cryptocurrency platform was unable to bear initial traffic levels, resulting in the suspension of money laundering controls.
The technological challenges pile on top of a substantial redrawing of El Salvador’s administrative map likely to narrow the race in the ruling party’s favor. Bukele-sponsored reforms in June cut one-third of Assembly seats and 83 percent of the mayors’ offices across the country.
A data analysis by El Faro shows that if the 2021 elections had been subject to the reforms —which created 44 mega-municipalities, down from 262— the opposition would have only obtained four mayors’ offices, all of them by Arena, as opposed to 66. In August, a Gavidia University poll predicted that next February Nuevas Ideas could obtain 58 of 60 congressional seats.
Similar to the Guatemalan elections, early concerns have emerged over the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) arbitrage. Fuerza Solidaria was allowed to ignore legal requirements in registering to compete in 2024. Three opposition parties have called on the Tribunal to audit the diaspora online voting system amid questions about its integrity.
At the end of August the magistrates of the TSE traveled to Washington to meet with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to invite them to send an observation mission to El Salvador. The European Union confirmed to El Faro English that it also received an invitation from the Tribunal and stated that “the request is under consideration at E.U. headquarters.”
Sources close to the E.U. internal debates assert, though, that the intention is to send a smaller mission than in previous years, based on two considerations: they consider the winner to be a foregone conclusion and the chief concerns regarding the process are not confined to election day itself.
“The real problem has already occurred: It is the cooptation of justice institutions and the resolution of the Constitutional Chamber,” agrees Salazar of DPLF. “The key is how the observation missions will report all that has happened prior to election day, including the resolution, where it is more or less clear that it violates fundamental rights because it came from an organ that is not independent.”
Nevertheless, “if Bukele is reelected, governments will of course accept it,” she added.
The day after Castro’s pro-reelection meeting in Virginia, opposition presidential candidate Luis Parada, of Nuestro Tiempo, met in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. with 25 representatives of different diaspora organizations. Parada called the Constitutional Chamber magistrates who green-lit Bukele’s reelection bid “usurpers.”
“If Bukele registers as a candidate and the TSE accepts him, the Constitution will be violated. And that in no way can lead to a legitimate government,” Parada said. “Some candidates are only there to give the impression to the international community that six or seven parties are participating. When you see candidates [in the campaign] who are not denouncing, it’s because they’re playing a different hand.”