El Salvador picks its favourite authoritarian

By: |
March 2, 2021 3:36 PM

El Salvador voted for its mid-term polls on the 28th of February, and though Nayib Bukele’s name was not even on the ballot, the election seems to be more about him than ever before.

El SalvadorA dictatorial Bukele would prove to be the piece that doesn’t fit in Biden’s Central American puzzle.

By Dr Aparaajita Pandey, 

El Salvador voted for its mid-term polls on the 28th of February, and though Nayib Bukele’s name was not even on the ballot, the election seems to be more about him than ever before. Bukele was elected as the President of El Salvador in the 2019 elections on the basis of his populist rhetoric and his image of a young leader who was ready to break the bond with Salvador’s political past. These midterm elections that have turned out to be overwhelmingly in favour of Bukele’s party – Nueva Ideas or New Ideas have provided him with an opportunity to consolidate his power in an unprecedented fashion.

In 2017, Bukele was expelled from the traditional centre – left Salvadoran party; Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front or the FMLN. The FMLN is one of the traditionally dominant political parties of El Salvador, the other being Nationalist Republican Alliance or ARENA which is the centre-right party. While the two have dominated politics since the 12 year long civil war in the country ended in 1992; none of their regimes have been able to rid the country of the endemic violence which still remains a major concern for the voters.

In addition to one of the highest crime rates in the world, Salvador has been suffering from a shrinking economy and the added economic devastation caused by the global pandemic has led to a fiscal deficit of approximately 9.6 per cent for the country. In this context, Bukele ran for the Presidential elections in 2019 with his newly formed political party – New Ideas and was seen as a welcome relief from traditional politicians. His authoritarian rhetoric of anti -corruption, crack down on crime and getting the economy back on track, was bolstered by his actions of getting the military and police in the unicameral assembly of El Salvador to pressurize the senators into submission. His use of the armed forces to enforce the lock-downs for Covid-19 as well as the horrific pictures of gang-members stripped, hand-cuffed and huddled together in the Salvadoran prisons were quite indicative of his intentions about using power. As if to clarify any further doubts, Bukele once facetiously changed his Twitter picture to that of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical movie – The Dictator.

While some have hailed him as a strong leader, many are extremely weary of his tendencies of irrevocable and unopposed consolidation of power. These mid-term polls have made it easier for him to do exactly that; the polls have led to clearing a path for Bukele for a super-majority of 56 seats out of a total of 84. This majority would further legitimize and bolster his abuse of presidential authority as he has in the past used coercion and force to further his own demands in the parliament and also with the Supreme Court.

However, a strong and constant opposition to an unchecked Bukele is the newly elected Biden administration. The Salvadoran authoritarianism would prove to be an obstacle in Biden’s plan for a peaceful and democratic Central America. Biden has taken particular interest in the Central American region and has announced a hefty economic package for the region aimed at consolidation of democracy, curbing of crime, and an overall improvement of the living conditions in the region so as to stymie the flow of illegal immigrants to the US from the region. A dictatorial Bukele would prove to be the piece that doesn’t fit in Biden’s Central American puzzle. Therefore, one would not be wrong to expect considerable pressure from the US and a constant vigil of the political practices of Bukele by the Biden Administration.

Bukele believes that his ways guarantee success and his rhetoric is emblematic of his desire to continue with his ‘strong man’ politics. The Salvadoran President plans to use his new found legitimacy and lack of effective opposition as an opportunity to move ahead with his borrowing plans for the country, including borrowing from the International Monetary Fund or the IMF to bolster the finances of the unstable Salvadoran economy.

While some have welcomed the landslide victory for Bukele, others are rightfully concerned of his proclivity towards authoritarianism, use of force and violence, and abuse of the armed forces. However, with Biden as an added variable in the politics of the Americas; it would be interesting to see what the future holds for Bukele.

(The author is an Asst. Professor at the Department of Public Policy at Amity University, Noida and a PhD from Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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