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Did El Salvador just vote to end democracy?

The world’s “coolest dictator,” Nayib Bukele, wins reelection.

Bukele supporters gather outside the National Palace in San Salvador at night. The person closest to the camera is draped in a printed image of Bukele wearing sunglasses. Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

On February 4, as El Salvador held presidential elections, current president Nayib Bukele showed up at a polling place accompanied by speakers blasting “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.

The song choice was deliberate — Bukele was once again trolling critics who claim he’s steering the country toward autocracy. For a while, his Twitter bio read “The World’s Coolest Dictator.”

Since being elected president in 2019, Bukele has made international headlines for what some have described as a millennial persona, eschewing ties and suits in favor of jeans and sunglasses and taking a selfie during his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He has famously sold El Salvador as a cryptocurrency paradise, making it the first country in the world to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender.

But Bukele’s detractors say he has used the presidency to push El Salvador away from democracy, packing the nation’s judiciary with judges sympathetic to his policies and reshaping electoral law to ensure his political party holds a majority in the legislature.

During his nearly five years in office, Bukele has declared an ongoing state of emergency, using the threat of gang violence to curtail civil liberties. He very publicly stormed the legislature with the aid of the military to demand funding for his policy priorities. And the fact that Bukele ran for reelection at all was unprecedented and probably illegal: El Salvador’s constitution explicitly bars reelection to consecutive presidential terms. Still, he has claimed victory in the vote and few are disputing that he won the presidency, though 60 seats in Congress are being disputed by El Salvador’s electoral body.

Silvia Viñas is the co-host of a new podcast about Bukele, Bukele: El señor de Los Sueños. She says that if you define a democracy only as the people being able to vote, El Salvador has that.

However, democracy is about much more. If Bukele controls everything without checks to his authority, Silvia asks, is the country’s government still a democracy? What follows is an adapted transcript of her conversation with Sean Rameswaram, co-host of Vox’s Today, Explained podcast, edited for length and clarity. — Jesse Alejandro Cottrell

Sean Rameswaram

[Bukele is] the youngest president in the history of El Salvador when he’s elected in 2019. A millennial president. What’s he like when he gets into office? Is it all avocado toast and Instagram or what?

Silvia Viñas

He sells this image of the young, hip millennial president who is different from the other presidents in Latin America. He was 37 — as you say he looked very different from other presidents. He didn’t wear suits. He wore leather jackets, he used social media to conduct state business, to fire government employees or to ask them to take care of an issue. When he went to the UN, he took a selfie.

When he took office, the Congress did their job of being a counterweight and performing checks and balances, as they should in a democracy, because he doesn’t have a majority there. And so he started a fight with lawmakers because he wanted them to help finance his plan to reduce violent killings and to fight the gangs.

So Congress asked for more details about how he’s going to spend the money. And Bukele got tired of legislators delaying everything, so he called for an extraordinary session for Sunday, February 9th, 2020.

So some legislators go, but they don’t have enough people to actually carry out a session to vote on the loan. Meanwhile, Bukele advertised on social media for people to go march to Congress. They use government buses driven by military personnel to bring people to this gathering. And inside, while the legislators are waiting for the session to start, armed military personnel show up inside the building.

Legislators feared that this was a coup, with military entering the Congress.

Sean Rameswaram

It sounds like January 6th if it worked.

Silvia Viñas

Yes, and so Bukele asked the crowd, will you let me enter Congress? And of course, they say “Yes!”

So he entered the room where the legislators are waiting, with the military already inside. He sat in the chair where the president of the Congress would sit during a session. And he said, “Let’s say a prayer.”

He puts his hands on his head and he prayed in silence. And then he just got up and left. It was like a show of force, showing what he’s capable of doing. It was a fear tactic, showing that he could instigate a coup.

Sean Rameswaram

Does he find a way to consolidate power after that?

Silvia Viñas

Yeah, he consolidates power the following year when his party and allied parties win a majority in Congress. So within a few months after winning that election, he was able to gain legislative power and then judicial power. After that it’s like, okay, he can do anything he wants. He controls everything.

Sean Rameswaram

It’s my understanding that one of the reasons people back Bukele is because he’s taking a stand against the gangs and gang violence in El Salvador. How does he, as president, oppose the gangs?

Silvia Viñas

You might remember the images of prisoners in Salvadoran jails with shaved heads, without a shirt, with their hands behind their back, all sitting very close to one another in lines? Those images went around the world.

That was a reaction from President Bukele, because in April 2020 there was a surge in violence and 76 homicides in four days. His response was to crack down on gang members in jails, and he authorized security officers to use lethal force on inmates and suspects. He mixed members of rival gangs in the same cells. He was trying to show that he was treating the gang members terribly because they’ve done so much damage to our society. But then another big wave of violence happens, and there are 87 murders in three days.

So Bukele requested that Congress declare a state of emergency. And this state of emergency has been renewed 22 times, every 30 days. We’re almost at a two-year mark under a state of emergency in the name of fighting the gangs.

Sean Rameswaram

And what does the state of emergency get him in terms of power?

Silvia Viñas

It suspends basic rights, like right to defense or the presumption of innocence. More military on the streets and more military resources. The government so far has imprisoned over 75,000 people — that’s more than 1 percent of the population.

El Salvador is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are thousands of reports of arbitrary arrests, of abuse, of torture. But again, this is possibly his most celebrated measure and the one that has ultimately made him one of the most popular politicians in the Americas.

Sean Rameswaram

Bukele seems to have consolidated so much power while in office. But he is still restricted by a constitutional term limit. How does he get past that?

Silvia Viñas

The Salvadoran constitution is very clear that reelection is prohibited. Basically, you can be president as many times as you win in El Salvador, but just not consecutively. So in September 2021, the Constitutional chamber, which is controlled by pro-Bukele magistrates, issued a resolution that says that only the people can decide whether the president should continue, ignoring the articles of the Constitution.

The chamber basically interprets one article of the constitution to say the only requirement is that he step down from the position of president six months before the beginning of the new presidential term. So he stepped down from office before December 1st of 2023, and the new period will begin in June.

Sean Rameswaram

What do people think he’s going to do now that he has this historic second term?

Silvia Viñas

When he announced that he was running, he said we have shown that this is the only correct path for El Salvador. We can expect the state of emergency to continue. There’s no indication that Bukele plans to dial back his policies.

There’s a concern that several experts mentioned concerning his popularity while so many people have been arrested. As his popularity decreases, there’s a concern that he will use the military even more, become more ironfisted, and implement more of these policies to maintain his power.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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