Three years after kicking the machinery into high gear, Nayib Bukele consummated electoral fraud. The journey included a coup d’état against the Supreme Court of Justice, installing his own attorney general and magistrates, to get the Legislative Assembly and the Court to sign off on his unconstitutional reelection, threatening Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates with prison time if they opposed his candidacy, extending the vote to the diaspora without controls or oversight, and illegally asphyxiating the opposition.
In the final stretch Bukele, his vice president, and his party Nuevas Ideas’ legislative and mayoral candidates used state funds to campaign — from distributing food packets to utilizing government facilities and state media outlets in their service. At the same time, the government illegally denied the opposition their electoral public funding and spooked businessmen from financing parties other than Nuevas Ideas.
None of it was supposed to be necessary for him to win. He is so popular, and the opposition is as strapped for resources as it is for credibility, that nobody doubted his candidacy —unconstitutional as it is— would take home most of the votes. He nonetheless pulled every lever of fraud, proving the nature of the Bukele clan. They refuse to concede a sole space for plural political expressions, in the process violating the Constitution and electoral legislation. Their control over the entire state apparatus guarantees them impunity.
Three journalistic investigations made public the week before the vote showed government negotiations with organized crime, new corruption cases detected three years ago by the defunct International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) —then buried by the current AG—, and the systematic use of a state bank to grant multimillion-dollar loans to a dozen legislators and government officials. All cases point to the negligence of the Bukele-appointed attorney general, confirming that he was tasked with protecting the corrupt mafias in Salvadoran public offices and with pursuing only those who impede the Bukele clan’s accumulation of power.
El Salvador now lives under a single party regime in the service of a dictatorship.
Technically, El Salvador will enter into the new era on June 1, 2024, when no institution will prevent Bukele from inaugurating his second term. But the foundations for the dictatorship were laid on May 1, 2021, when the Legislative Assembly, controlled by the ruling party, dealt its coup against the judicial branch and the president absconded with total control of the state.
We Salvadorans have been stripped of our constitutional guarantees, first through arbitrary emergency decrees in the pandemic, then by the installation of a state of exception that for the last two years shed any veneer of rule of law. Too often it is overlooked that this year’s elections have taken place under the state of exception.
The brief democratic era in El Salvador, the only one in its history, has thus come to an end. Nayib Bukele just engraved his name in the annals of one of the worst political traditions in Central America: that of the dictator.
But worth pondering is the fact that, despite the authoritarianism, repression, and corruption of his first term in office, Bukele enjoys the highest popularity of any head of state in Latin America. The great majority of Salvadorans want him to remain in power. His discourse against crime and the dismantling of gang structures have transformed the lives of many citizens who lived in terror under the yoke of the maras. Today, for the first time in many decades, Salvadorans no longer name security as their chief concern.
This popularity will not last forever — mostly because, according to opinion polling, Salvadorans are now most concerned with the economy, which the government has left in worse condition than five years ago.
The coming years will only bring ever-increased concentration of power, abuse of state resources, opacity, and repression. It happened before in our history, even if national lack of memory has relativized the pain caused by past dictatorships and marginalized our democratic heroes. Democracies need democrats, who are in increasingly short supply. We must be reminded that only a democratic system can guarantee equal rights for all, justice, and limits on the exercise of power.
Citizens committed to democracy, those still capable of indignation in the face of the plundering of the state and the thousands of innocents imprisoned or tortured in Bukele’s jails, must channel their determination, indignation, and thirst for justice to awaken the conscience of others. Dictatorship stands again before us. We must resist.