On Sunday, El Salvador is poised to reelect Nayib Bukele, who in five years has become an international political and communications phenomenon. His popularity among Salvadorans —and the fascination that he draws in another dozen countries in the hemisphere— are only matched by the power he has accumulated: He controls the Legislative Assembly and Supreme Court of Justice at his whim; the Police and Army hang on his every word; he disobeys laws or rewrites them in hours; and in these elections he faces an impotent array of opposition parties who risk disappearing if they do not obtain enough votes. With the results he has produced in terms of security, but above all his neo-strongman image, he has been catapulted as the face of fashionable authoritarianism while claiming to usher in a new democracy.
One of the president’s rallying-cries is to attack those who defend human rights. Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), has had several online tussles with him. The most recent was a sequel to another in 2022, when Bukele scolded the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). “Hardly original,” she said of his anti-human rights discourse.
In this interview, Jiménez, who is Venezuelan-Mexican and the former director of research for the Americas at Amnesty International, says that the Sunday reelection “would send a negative signal to those of us who believe in democracy.” She accuses Bukele of manipulating the electoral map, denounces the lack of transparency of the online voting system that the diaspora is using, and insists that the legitimacy of the vote will be “called into question” regardless of how overwhelming his victory.
WOLA was born in 1973 in response to the crimes of Pinochet in Chile, and for half a century has denounced human rights violations across the Americas. This week they published a document asserting that “El Salvador has failed to comply with these minimum standards” set by the IACHR for the elections to be considered free and fair. With hours remaining before the polls open, Jiménez criticizes the silence of most of the international community toward Bukele’s unconstitutional reelection, and toward the thousands of cases of arbitrary detention and torture committed under the two-year state of exception. “With the kind of human rights violations that are taking place, it is necessary to call things by their name,” she said.
Do you believe the Salvadoran electoral process is trustworthy?
There are a whole series of factors that call into question the legitimacy of the process, starting with the root problem: that the president, who is without a doubt very popular, has used a tailor-made interpretation of the Constitution to launch a bid for immediate reelection, a move prohibited by the Constitution. All of the presidents who were democratically elected in the past had respected this. This violation of the Constitution damages the base of the legal pyramid.
But other minimum rules, too, should take precedence, like the independence of electoral institutions, access to information to audit the process, etcetera. But there is a host of irregularities that call into question the legitimacy of the result, like the reduction of the number of seats in the legislature and mayors’ offices, and the change to a new vote-count method just months before the election. We call that gerrymandering in the United States, where there has been great criticism of the redistribution of districts, especially by the Republican party, as a tool clearly designed to adjust voter preference in certain territories to one’s own interest.
The Salvadoran case goes deeper, because the change affects aspects of the budget and territorial control beyond the electoral aspect. But what we have seen in the campaign in recent weeks is a president who only cares about having an absolute majority in Congress, and the territorial redistribution helps him because, as public opinion surveys show, the machinery of his party is not as strong as his personal popularity. In the end, the aspiration of every authoritarian leader is to control all institutions and stay in power. We see it in every case of authoritarianism in Latin America.
In the document published this week, WOLA also referenced the effects of the lack of judicial independence on the electoral process. In Guatemala we recently saw the enormous impact that the independence or not of the Supreme Court or constitutional tribunal can have on an election.
It’s not only the case of Guatemala, which is obviously peculiar because it is rare to see such an excessive judicialization of the electoral process. In Venezuela, too, you can see how the justice system is used to control electoral matters. Independent judiciaries are vital to guaranteeing that any person taking issue with the results or process, whether they are a common citizen or candidate and do so before or after the fact, can have the issue resolved. When the justice system is not independent, these processes become purely nominal, with the answer hinging on the Executive Branch.
The diaspora vote is one of the pillars of the electoral campaign of the current government. You have also denounced that the new online voting system has neither technical supervision nor direct observation.
We defend the right to vote, obviously. And in countries with significant diasporas like El Salvador, voting from abroad must be guaranteed by the state. The question is how to guarantee it. The data speaks to a radical increase in participation…
More than 140 thousand Salvadorans abroad have already voted. That is almost 40 times the number of votes that the diaspora cast in the previous presidential election.
Yes, and that is important, because in many countries with large diasporas the participation from abroad is extremely low. It is excellent that the people from one country who live in another —in the Salvadoran case, almost all in the United States— can exercise a fundamental right. But at the same time, from the start the electoral rules must generate few doubts and a high degree of certainty. In El Salvador the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, passed a new law for diaspora voting but ignored recommendations from independent organizations like IFES that suggested they also regulate it. Regulations are developed precisely to disperse any doubt, and in an election trustworthiness is one of the primary guarantees that the results will be respected, not only by the majority, but also by minorities who did not vote for the winner.
In the new law there are large gaps. For example, there is no clarity as to the criteria of eligibility to vote from abroad, and they did not create an electoral roll stating exactly who can vote or where — whether in Washington, D.C., a city in California, or New York. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) itself has acknowledged that there is no roll, and this increases the doubts, the questions.
Does the fact that the polls project an overwhelming victory for President Bukele and his party add a degree of certainty?
That is part of the problem: All of this is happening in a context in which the idea has been totally positioned that the process does not matter, because the final result will be the reelection of the president. But that cannot be the argument. It does not matter if the president wins with 99 or 50.1 percent of the votes; what is important is that the public deserves an electoral system that inspires trust and efficiency, regardless of whether the president is popular. Otherwise, practices could be established that later will be hard to change.
Even so, if Bukele wins 80 or 90 percent of the votes he will say that his democratic legitimacy is out of the question.
Democracy does not exclusively depend on votes or the support for a political leader. Democracy is a system of rules, norms, institutions… and above all, of citizenry. Very interestingly, in the polls Salvadorans overwhelmingly agree that gang members should be detained, but if you dissect the data and ask a Salvadoran if he or she agrees that someone should be arbitrarily detained, she will tell you no. These are citizens who, if they had more information, would probably oppose some of this government’s practices. But the president, as we all know, controls the narrative and a large part of the news outlets in the country.
Latin America has a long and sad history of authoritarian hyper-presidentialism, in which a leader believes that he embodies both the people and democracy, but democracy goes far beyond individual leadership. The basic tenets of representative democracy are based on the idea that you need checks and balances to avoid excesses.
If President Bukele and his defenders believe that winning 70 or 90 percent of votes allows him to do as he wishes, without respecting institutions, they are wrong. The legal system is precisely designed to protect societies from authoritarian leaders —dictators— who abuse popular will.
Two international missions will observe the elections in El Salvador: the OAS and a more reduced team from the E.U. What do you expect from them?
States like to say that there was neutral observation on voting day, but the monitoring must include an objective analysis of everything that occurred before, during, and after the election. And that includes underlining not only the virtues of a voting system and process, like broad participation. There will probably be lower abstention this time, especially abroad, but it is also an international mission’s job to mention the defects of the electoral roll, the abuses of advertising, and the threats or silencing of opponents, of how the press was treated, the degree of access to information about the process for international monitors and the independent and critical press.
Among the opposition parties, who have received very reduced voter interest, there were internal debates as to the convenience or not of participating in this election, because they believe they are not competing under equal conditions with the ruling party, and do not believe that the TSE has offered guarantees of independence. Does their participation whitewash an unjust election?
El Salvador is not the only country where we have seen that dilemma. Obviously each political actor makes their decisions based on their own reading of the scenario, but I think parties tend to strengthen themselves more when they participate than when they stop doing so. That way they are present, they have a voice, they construct visible leaders, and, even as a minority, they mobilize their supporters. That prepares them for the future.
We have seen it in the most difficult contexts, and there have been surprises even in countries where the elections seemed totally rigged or decided a priori. Who would have said that Bernardo Arévalo and the Semilla party would win the presidency in Guatemala? What would have happened had they not participated? Even in the most authoritarian places the political opposition has opted to continue using the vote as a mechanism for political change.
Despite all the criticism of the electoral process, the international community has not appeared very concerned about fair play in El Salvador.
There was a moment, when presidential reelection became a topic of conversation, when the international community did respond, questioning the legitimacy and legality of reelection. But once President Bukele pushed forward and enrolled as a candidate, I think it was taken as a done deed, and the general position became, “Well, this is the reality in El Salvador,” and “the president’s popularity allows it, even if it is openly unconstitutional.”
Part of the international community is probably betting that, in a second presidential term for Bukele, strides can be made to slow his authoritarian race, the grave human rights violations, etcetera. That is why, unfortunately, there has been much less criticism than we would have liked to see.
Popularity is never a blank check for a political leader. Popularity does not make you democratic. The popularity of the brand that the president has constructed for himself has given way to practices that are totally unacceptable.
The most visible case is the United States, which first compared Bukele to Hugo Chávez two years ago, and now avoids any and all public criticism. What do you make of that shift in position and tone?
It is a pragmatic turn that we at WOLA have much criticized. In the first years in power there was tension between the Bukele administration and the U.S. government, which crystallized in a complex and often antagonistic relationship with the Embassy. I think the State Department has decided at the moment —with election season also underway in the United States— to take that idea of popularity as a reason to, instead of confronting Bukele’s antidemocratic practices, generate a relationship of possible cooperation while sending private messages of another kind, thinking that this can generate changes in his behavior.
Do you think that can work?
With the kind of human rights violations that are taking place in El Salvador, and when the democratic backsliding is so prominent, I think it is very important that the yardstick of the United States and others in the international community be present. It is necessary to call things by their name. We may agree on bilateral relations based on cooperation, but staying silent toward democratic backsliding and grave human rights violations is not acceptable.
Have you discussed this with U.S. officials? What was their response?
They believe private diplomacy can work, as a valid strategy when confrontation is perceived to fail. Those of us who work alongside the victims and civil society organizations, and who speak with journalists in exile or people in El Salvador who are being attacked, have a very different perspective. We think of how these people feel protected by the international community’s word. That protection does not occur when silent diplomacy is chosen.
What the State Department is repeating in public lately is that it will support all presidents elected freely and fairly. Based on our conversation, would you say the Salvadoran elections will be free and fair?
It is a difficult question, because the popularity of the president suggests that Salvadorans would probably say they voted freely, in the sense that they will be able to express support for the candidate of their choosing. But the process has been so irregular that I do think it will suffer from a lack of legitimacy.
In the first place, due to the constitutional violations, these elections are not completely legal. The entire state apparatus is being used to guarantee reelection and give an appearance of legality to something that the Constitution does not permit.
And I do not think these are fair elections for other parties and aspirants, due to the control that Bukele has on all institutions, the lack of independence of public powers, the lack of access to information, the threats against media outlets, against those who think differently. There are no truly competitive conditions for those who dissent, regardless of whether they are 10 or 50 percent of the population, if they are one candidate or 20. There should be conditions of equality for all, and I do not think that is the case. That removes the adjective “fair” from these elections.
What I do think, and this must be accepted, analyzed, and understood in its context, is that the majority of Salvadorans will reelect President Bukele.
In elections taking place under a state of exception that has now lasted 22 months.
That is part of the democratic erosion in El Salvador. First you violate the Constitution to run for reelection, and later you are reelected in a context in which you have stripped citizens of a load of constitutional guarantees. It is doubly unconstitutional. If there is a message one would send to the president, it is that he should use his reelection to desist from the state of exception, which is not only an assault on the rule of law but against the citizens. The state of exception has become an unacceptable state of normal affairs, and is generating huge numbers of victims and consolidating practices that will later be very difficult to revert, like police abuse, the role of the Armed Forces, and the lack of transparency.
If Bukele himself is saying that this will be his final term, let him use it to leave a legacy in favor of society, not this legacy of authoritarianism.
After the recent decision of the Colorado Supreme Court on the participation or not of Donald Trump in the state primaries, Bukele questioned the legitimacy of the United States in questioning other countries. Do you believe the United States has lost legitimacy to speak about democracy in Latin America?
It is clear that the United States is struggling for the survival of its own democracy, something that was unthinkable 20 years ago. As always, they are facing a great deal of criticism of their foreign policy, and their institutions were once much stronger than they are today. That internal struggle for their own democracy puts them in a difficult place to try to protect or weigh in on other democracies. That is a reality.
That said, three years have passed since January 6, an insurrectionary event —as well as surreal— that perhaps other countries with weaker institutions would not have survived. The United States completed the transfer of power, and overcame that test. The elections this year will be a second great test, permitting us to not only see citizens’ preference but also whether the institutions manage to save the country’s democracy. That will affect the United States’ ability to contribute to democratic stability in other regions of the world.
What impact will Bukele’s reelection have on the region?
Latin American democracies are eroding, and the reelection of Nayib Bukele, especially if by a significant majority, would send a negative signal to those of us who believe in democracy. It is very concerning because we do not want to see replications of the Bukele model, a term referring to his security strategy and much more. We should warn that the Bukele model, of seeking consecutive reelection when it is not permitted or of coopting all state institutions, consists of things that other authoritarians have done, but here are occurring all at once and at an incredible speed.
We must acknowledge that security is paramount for citizens, and that is a lesson that will be very important to analyze, because all Salvadorans have the right to a life free of violence, and past governments failed to guarantee it. But the Bukele system will not be sustainable, and will later likely lead to other repressive practices to maintain those levels of criminality. Let’s hope other leaders on the continent do not take his electoral success as a sign that weakening democracy and violating the constitution are rewarded by citizens.