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El Salvador president consolidates power amid fears of authoritarianism

Nayib Bukele
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, addresses supporters in San Salvador.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

A year ago, the president of El Salvador denounced the opposition-controlled congress as a collection of “criminals” and stormed into the legislative palace with heavily armed troops and police in riot gear.

The show of force — a failed attempt to win approval of a $109-million loan for military and law enforcement equipment to crack down on gang violence — was widely assailed as one of the darkest points in El Salvador’s history since a bloody civil war ended in 1992.

Now, it looks as though President Nayib Bukele won’t have to worry anymore about lawmakers thwarting his agenda.

The 39-year-old leader stood in a singular position of power Monday after his party won a landslide victory in mid-term balloting held a day earlier in this Central American nation of 6.5 million.

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Initial results showed his New Ideas party set to win 56 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, the country’s unicameral congress. An allied bloc was expected to win an additional five seats, likely giving Bukele the ability to name the attorney general, Supreme Court justices and fill other key posts and pass laws despite any objections from other political parties.

It was a triumph of unprecedented scope since the country emerged from the war which left more than 75,000 dead — and set out on an uneven path toward democracy.

The victory was so complete that many critics at home and abroad worried of an accelerated drift toward one-man rule by a president who has been accused of authoritarian tendencies.

Left in tatters is the previous system dominated by two major parties, both with origins in the war.

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Local media projected that only 14 seats would go to the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, which governed the country between 1989 and 2009.

And just four seats were expected to go to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, formerly the leftist guerrilla force that fought the U.S.-backed government during the war.

“We are writing the history of our country,” a triumphant Bukele declared Monday in a Twitter message to his more than 2.3 million followers.

Since taking office nearly two years ago, Bukele has constantly demonized the opposition, the press and most anyone who objected to his bare-knuckles brand of populist politics. He has appointed family members to his government, ignored Supreme Court rulings and legislative directives and sent accused violators of his strict pandemic lockdown into detention.

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Last month, Bukele sent a Twitter message insinuating that the FMLN had orchestrated the shooting deaths of two of its supporters following a campaign rally in a bid to attract sympathy to the party’s flagging campaign.

At one point last year, Bukele told a group of international bankers: “If you lived for one day in El Salvador, you would set fire to all the politicians together.”

Such rhetoric has fanned fears that Bukele, largely freed from legislative restraint, will run roughshod in the remainder of his five-year term.

“The excess of power, without control … tends to corrupt, not only on the economic level, but also in the terrain of ideas, ethics and human rights,” stated an editorial published Monday by the University of Central America in San Salvador.

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The Jesuit-run institution — where soldiers in 1989 slew six priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in one of one of the most notorious massacres of the civil war — added: “To believe that El Salvador can show progress with authoritarianism [and] lacking dialogue is not to know its history.”

Miguel Fortin Magaña, a columnist for the newspaper La Prensa Grafica, tweeted: “Rest in peace, El Salvador. Yesterday you lost your democracy.”

But Bukele supporters were elated. Fireworks filled the night sky in San Salvador as they celebrated his victory.

“To all who helped throw out the corrupt ones …. THANK YOU!” tweeted Milena Mayorga, the Salvadoran ambassador to Washington.

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Bukele, a former mayor of San Salvador who once headed a motorcycle distributorship in the capital, won the presidency on an outsider platform of fighting corruption, transcending political partisanship and restoring security.

His hipster image, built on a penchant for sunglasses and leather jackets, and his agility on social media helped solidify his standing as a youthful reformer who could help El Salvador escape its past. He was 10 when the peace accords ended the war.

“El Salvador has turned the page on the postwar era,” Bukele declared after being elected.

Bukele had run under the banner of a small, center-right party while New Ideas — which he had formed a year earlier — was still being legalized.

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He assiduously pursued and achieved a close relationship with the Trump administration. He labeled Trump “cool,” inked an immigration deal with Washington assailed by human rights advocates as unfair to migrants, and broke off relations with the socialist government of Venezuela.

He is unlikely to enjoy a similar closeness with President Biden, who has emphasized the spreading of democracy and the fight against corruption in Central America.

Juan González, the Biden administration’s National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told El Salvadoran news site El Faro in January that he expected “differences” with Bukele and that any leader not “ready” to combat corruption would not be a U.S. ally.

The Associated Press reported that no one from Biden’s team agreed to see Bukele during a recent visit to Washington. Bukele denied any snub.

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Bukele’s popularity in El Salvador is undisputed. Some polls have shown a more than 80% approval rating, a reflection in part of widespread dissatisfaction with the corruption-plagued parties that long dominated.

Many voters credit Bukele’s security policy with helping to bring down endemic gang violence, though El Salvador’s homicide rate, among the world’s highest, had been on decline for years before Bukele took office.

Bukele has also forged close ties to the powerful armed forces and police, and championed cash grants and free-food distribution to the needy during the pandemic.

“Despite Bukele’s clear authoritarian tendencies … the Salvadoran president is a political juggernaut in a country where an overwhelmingly young population evinces scant concern with the erosion of democratic norms and institutions,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said in an e-mail.

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“The only constraints on Bukele’s power are besieged independent media and civil society groups in El Salvador, as well as a Biden administration that has already showed its concern about the country’s worrying authoritarian slide.”

Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from El Salvador.


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