The Paradox of Democratic Backsliding in El Salvador

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Democratic backsliding poses a serious threat El Salvador and to democracies globally (Image credit: Human Rights Watch).

The millennial dictator Nayib Bukele from El Salvador is one of the most controversial leaders in the world. Bukele was elected in 2019 with a sweeping 53% majority during a time when El Salvador held the highest homicide rate in the world. Thanks to the seemingly perpetual state of emergency declared by Bukele’s government, murder rates have subsequently fallen from 61.8 per 10000 people to 52 per 10000; unfortunately, it still holds its gory title as the world’s ‘murder capital’ and it’s likely we’ll see a spike following the eventual release of the estimated 2% of El Salvador’s population that is currently detained.

It was originally in March of 2022 that Bukele declared this state of emergency. Following 62 deaths attributed to gang violence in a single weekend, immediate measures included the following: increasing the amount of time one could be detained without trial, authorizing prison sentences of 10-15 years for members of the press that reproduced messages from the gangs and among many other things, reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 12. His popularity and legitimacy are impeccable, but the power he wields has been used to intimidate lawmakers. When opponents balked at voting on part of his security plan, he took soldiers into the Legislative Assembly to remove Supreme Court justices who had challenged some of his measures. 

The topic I want to address in this article is the paradoxical nature of the popular sanction of democratic backsliding, particularly through the recent example of El Salvador. We are witnessing a new paradigm of autocracy assaulting the liberal values that entail due process, checks and balances, individual rights, and freedom of expression. Though a novel irony permeates this issue, its outcome will define international cooperation and unilateral action for decades to come and has repercussions that will be felt all over the world. 

Voter fraud and coups receded in recent years due to the severity of economic sanctions upon dictatorships, but deeper issues still remain. Firstly, while Bukele is not guilty of initiating a promissory coup because he was voted into office under just election conditions, the state of emergency he has used to justify the detainment of any young men with gang associations is similar to the justifications of many coup-makers that state the suspension of oversight is necessary to ensure the functioning of the state. 

Similarly, executive aggrandizement is often framed as the will of democratic mandate and is more indicative of El Salvador’s current situation. Through the populist control of legislative and constitutional bodies, the presidential terms and powers of the executive branch of government are increased, and the general accountability that ensures the checks and balances among government branches takes a back seat to brazen presidential action, not unlike Bukele’s military courts and his overthrow of the legislative branch in favor of a populist assembly. 

Finally, we come to the strategic manipulation of elections – unlike election-day voter fraud, the strategic manipulation of elections happens far before election day. Backsliding that comes under this category includes hampering media access, using government funds for incumbent campaigns, keeping opposition candidates off the ballot, hampering voter registration, packing electoral commissions, changing electoral rules to favor incumbents, and harassing opponents—but all done in such a way that the elections themselves do not appear fraudulent. 

In December of 2021, the US treasury accused Bukele’s administration of collaborating with the gangs, releasing incumbent gang members in return for reducing the homicide rate. If current authorities can prove that he used government funds for incumbent campaigns in the form of bribes for the gangs his chance for re-election next year is void because his draconian policies under-delivered. 

This is a grave situation, and its outcome will set a new precedent for the nature of our political institutions and societies. We must remain vigilant yet keep in mind that this rise was not sudden nor unpredictable; it is a rational response to the incompetence, ineptitude, and corruption of governments, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Despite the empirically pejorative effects of a decline in democracy, we have little justification to intervene, and attempting to deploy leverage is especially vexing under these conditions. At the same time, there is hope, Popular protests have contributed to substantial democratization in 22 countries over the last ten years – including Armenia, Tunisia, and Ecuador. Citizens will not stand by idly as they see their lifeblood bleed out of the political institutions that were supposed to represent them.

The dearth of accountability of autocratic regimes poses a threat to not only their citizens, but to the international community as a whole – they pose a serious obstacle to the state of international relations and collaboration on pertinent issues such as terrorism, climate change, and migration. Setting aside the violations of human rights in the process of silencing opposition in regimes such as China and Russia, unilateral cooperation on global goals and nuclear proliferation is paramount to our survival. To quote Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided cannot stand.” Well, neither can international peace if democratic backsliding is allowed to proliferate.   

Written by Zechariah Chen

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