El Salvador, an Internal Struggle

In recent years, the Central American republic of El Salvador has dominated the news for two things: migration and violence. For the last couple of years, the country has experienced massive outward migration into the United States. From 2000-2017, the Salvadoran foreign-born population in the U.S. grew by 142 per cent. This means that in the span of less than 20 years, the Salvadoran foreign-born population grew from 539,000 to 1.3 million in 2017. 

Nayib Bukele, the first President of  Latin America born of the “millennial” generation, was sworn in as president in June 2019. He focused on an anti-corruption platform where he promised to create jobs to prevent more Salvadorans from migrating. He also promised to end gang related terrorism, as by the time of his election, about 67,000 Salvadorans were members of gangs. The country’s high murder rate was also a priority, as within Latin America and the Caribbean, El Salavador had the largest number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, accounting for 52 deaths in 2018.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

In an interview with Al Jazeera in late December 2019, President Bukele claimed that he lowered crime and the homicide rate in the country by 60 per cent. But, how has he achieved this? President Bukele imposed harsh measures to lessen crime, including sending the army to patrol the streets and setting up police perimeters in the most violent parts of the country. He also closed Wi-Fi communications in the jails to prevent jailed gang members from sending orders to kill others. 

Bukele’s claims are right that he has reduced crime, as he has made great strides in protecting the domestic security of his citizens. From this view, his tenure as president so far can be regarded as successful. Daily homicides have been cut in half, and disappearances have plummeted by more than 40 percent under Bukele’s presidency. 

Although these are positive statistics and outcomes, Bukele’s hard-line approaches have been questionable and somewhat undemocratic. On February 9, 2020 the president deployed the army and the police inside the legislative assembly to force the branch of government to pass his crime bill. President Bukele himself was present in the assembly and when legislators refused to finance his anti-crime plan, he addressed his supporters outside the legislative assembly, stating that he as the voice of the people would get what he wanted from the assembly. Mario Ponce, the president of the Legislative Assembly, decried that Bukele had “attempted a coup d’état” against Congress.

Almost Complete Control Over the Government 

In March 2021, parties allied with Bukele won an absolute majority in Congress and will have control of it starting in May. His New Ideas party won 56 seats and his former party, GANA, obtained 5 seats, meaning that he and his allies won a total of 61 of the 84 seats in the legislative assembly. 

Because of this, Bukele has control over both branches of government and will be unrestrained in regard to lawmaking, unlike the year prior. With this power, he will also be able to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor’s office. With this in mind, he will become the first president in almost thirty years to have a super-majority in Congress. 

Behind Bukele’s Popularity 

President Bukele’s approval ratings sit around 90 percent which is the highest rating for any Latin American president. Part of his appeal is because he reflects the majority young millennial population in El Salvador, with the country’s median age around 27.7 years old. He frames himself to the public as a political outsider, and uses Twitter and TikTok to connect to his supporters. He also generally has a brash demeanour that has not been seen in El Salvador’s political arena for a long time. 

Many Salvadorans also praise him because he has been quite generous with government handouts under his presidency. Since the pandemic started, the government has given many of its citizens food packages and lump sums of cash. Bukele has also vowed to give laptops to 1.2 million students for online learning. 

Lack of Checks and Balances — a Frightening Sign for the Future?

With almost complete control over El Salvador’s institutions, Bukele will have the opportunity to completely transform the political landscape of the country for years to come. Although he has helped fix many of the systemic problems, he is setting a precedent for future leaders of the country to follow in his footsteps. While Bukele’s platform states he has the best intentions for his people, and he has widespread support among the population, it may only take one unpopular decision to lose his support. It remains unclear if Bukele’s push to monopolize control will be sustainable in the long term. Regardless, if El Salvador’s democratic institutions are to maintain their integrity, Bukele must learn that in a democracy, one cannot always get what they want. 

Edited by Dana Malapit.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by President of El Salvador and obtained via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.