El Salvador president’s reelection bid despite constitutional ban draws strong reaction
In the hours since Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced he would seek reelection despite a constitutional ban, opinion has quickly divided.
Those who want to give more time to the man who has arrested over 50,000 people in the last six months for alleged gang connections voiced their support, while a vocal minority who see it as one more unsurprising step toward authoritarianism rejected the move.
Bukele, riding a wave of popularity from his crackdown on gangs, announced his reelection bid in a televised speech Thursday night, El Salvador’s Independence Day.
Bukele’s current five-year term ends in 2024, but observers had long expected the announcement, especially since the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, handpicked by his supporters in the national Legislative Assembly, ruled last year that reelection was permitted despite the ban and ordered the electoral court to allow it.
“I don’t understand that about the constitution, but the man is doing a good job — he‘s finishing with the gangs — and yes, I support him,” said Estela Sánchez, a produce vendor in the San Salvador suburb of Santa Tecla.
Constitutional lawyers have said reelection would violate at least four articles of the constitution, including one that limits the presidential term to five years and states that a president will not continue in their functions for one day more.
Journalists in El Salvador who write about gangs can now be sent to prison. Two brothers defy the law with a story tying President Nayib Bukele to violent street gangs.
Vice President Félix Ulloa, predictably, sees it differently.
“Of course it isn’t unconstitutional,” he said. “One of the things that has concerned me my entire life has been to respect the rule of the democratic and constitutional state.”
However, some observers have voiced doubts for years about Bukele’s commitment to democratic institutions.
His popularity and sweeping electoral victories are unquestioned, but that power has been wielded to intimidate lawmakers: When opponents balked at voting on part of his security plan — to remove the attorney general and Supreme Court justices who had challenged some of his measures early in the COVID-19 pandemic — he took soldiers into the Legislative Assembly.
Assemblymember Dina Argueta of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front — the party Bukele began his political career in — said the announcement came as no surprise because Bukele had been working toward it.
“However, we must establish that our constitution does not allow reelection in any moment,” she said.
With his carefully crafted social media presence and populist politics, Nayib Bukele has become one of the most popular politicians on Earth. Now just one question remains: What does he want?
Juan Pappier, senior investigator in Human Rights Watch‘s Americas Division, has been a frequent critic of Bukele, and Bukele regularly rails against the human rights organization.
“This constitutional breach was predictable,” Pappier said via Twitter. “El Salvador for some time has been on the path to be a dictatorship and many, for ideological blindness, cowardice, geopolitical interests or obsession with immigration did not want to raise the voice in time or help to stop it.”
The crackdown began in late March after alleged gang members killed 62 people in one day, and has maintained its popularity within El Salvador despite a rising number of documented human rights violations. Nearly 53,000 people have been arrested amid a state of emergency that was enacted March 27; the emergency powers have been renewed monthly ever since.
Human and civil rights organizations have documented more than 3,000 abuses during the crackdown. Still, recent polling indicates over 90% of Salvadorans support the measures, including the suspension of some constitutional rights. Bukele’s own popularity has remained above 80%.
Four months into El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment, few use the cryptocurrency, fraud has been widespread, and the country has lost up to $22 million.
Under President Biden, the U.S. government has been more critical of Bukele’s administration, sanctioning some members of his inner circle and accusing officials of exchanging benefits with gang leaders in return for keeping homicides relatively low during the first half of his term.
Bukele has repeatedly denied the accusations, and his government has prosecuted officials from previous administrations for taking part in such arrangements with gangs.
The president’s reelection bid “is prohibited in the constitution,” said Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer with the nongovernmental watchdog Citizen Action.
“That’s the rule. If he does it, it is contrary to the constitution and takes us closer to Nicaragua,” Escobar added. “It’s that simple.”
Nicaragua may be Central America’s most ominous example. President Daniel Ortega was elected to his fourth consecutive term last November after jailing serious potential opponents.
And in Honduras, a constitutional ban on reelection did not stop former President Juan Orlando Hernández from running again either. A friendly court gave him the green light.
Still, Manuel Torres, a bank employee who was waiting for a bus in San Salvador on Friday, was among those willing to give Bukele the benefit of the doubt.
“Some say it is not legal. We’ll have to see what happens,” Torres said. “There’s a lot of time before the elections, but I would vote for him.”
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