This article was originally published in Spanish by ARPAS. Translated by CISPES and reprinted by El Tecolote, with permission. The Bay Area CISPES Chapter is in solidarity with those whose voices and political analysis are being suppressed by the Bukele administration. President Bukele attacks all opposition and has even violated press freedom by attacking Salvadoran journalists, frequently in a misogynistic manner. Additionally, his administration has increased militarization and supported international loans that harm the working class. To counter Bukele’s authoritarianism and hold the US accountable for their role in funding it, we are leading a campaign to get Congress to CUT military aid and devastating economic “development” assistance to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Take action by going to cispes.org/cutmilitaryaid and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you can get involved. Stay updated by following us on Twitter and Instagram @bayarea_cispes.
On Sunday February 9, 2020, President Nayib Bukele, during his failed coup against the Legislative Assembly, declared that he preferred to wait a year and “democratically remove” the “corrupt and scoundrel” legislators. After entering the assembly hall accompanied by the military and police, and occupying the chair of Legislative Assembly president Mario Ponce, he told his fans that – despite “having control” – he decided “not to press the button” because “God asked him for patience.” Therefore, he was going to wait for the elections on February 28, 2021.
And Bukele kept his word. On February 28, the president carried out his “democratic coup” in an overwhelming way: with 66% of the votes, he far exceeded the simple majority of 43 legislative seats and reached the desired qualified majority of 56 seats. With this absolute majority at his disposal, the president may – in addition to approving all the laws and decrees endorsed by a simple majority – approve more public debt, endorse constitutional reforms and appoint five new magistrates to the Supreme Court of Justice, prosecutor general, the Human Rights Ombudsman, members of the National Council of the Judiciary and the attorney general.
No president has ever had as much power as Bukele. The only similar situation would be the so-called “green steamroller” when in the 1985 legislative elections, in the midst of the civil war, the ruling Christian Democratic Party (PDC), led by then-president José Napoleón Duarte, obtained a simple majority with 33 of 60 legislators in the Parliament of that time.
How did Bukele and the New Ideas [party] achieve this “legislative supermajority”?
The ARPAS editorial on Wednesday, March 3, outlines six strategies that were “key” to the sweeping victory of bukelism in the Assembly, as well as in the mayorships and the Central American Parliament.
The first was “the centrality of the presidential figure.” NI [New Ideas] anchored its electoral strategy on the popularity of Bukele: the call was to “vote for the N of Nayib” and to elect “legislators that work with the president”, resulting in many people marking the NI flag believing that they were voting for Bukele. The president was the great elector, the win is his and no one else’s.
The second is “the hate speech against the same people as always.” Bukele and his party took full advantage of the opposition’s discredit and they opted for exacerbating to the extreme the disenchantment, frustration, resentment, anger and popular rejection of traditional parties and politicians. People voted for NI to “remove the corrupt legislators” of the other parties.
The third was “the fallacious fraud narrative.” To ensure high voter turnout, Bukele and company warned about alleged fraud: the phrase “mass voting kills fraud” was for the population to go to the polls en masse. Although, in the end, the low voter turnout of the opposition parties was more decisive than the “massive vote” of bukelism.
The fourth is “the government in a proselytizing role.” The president made significant resources, logistical structures, the communication apparatus, publicity and government programs available to the NI campaign. The delivery of food packages played a fundamental role: many people “thanked” the president by voting for his party.
The fifth was “the saturation campaign.” The easy and simple messaging of the bukelista campaign was omnipresent in traditional media, social media and public spaces. According to the organization, Citizen Action, NI spent $9 million on disseminating propaganda, an amount that represents 71% of the total invested by all parties and candidates.
And the sixth is “the systematic violation of electoral law.” The rules of the Electoral Code and the constitutional provisions referring to electoral processes represented an obstacle to the objectives of the Bukele and NI campaign, therefore they decided to violate them: they did not campaign within the designated time frame, the prohibition of using public office positions to favor parties or candidates and even [broke] electoral silence on elections day.
To these reasons, one more could be added: the role of gangs. Candidates from opposition parties denounced that gang members prevented them from campaigning in the territories they control. This makes sense considering that, according to the digital newspaper El Faro, the Bukele administration has agreements with these criminal groups.
As stated in the aforementioned editorial, seen in this way the “democratic coup” of President Bukele is far from being democratic. However, the result is “legal” and represents “the will of the people.”
What is the president going to use this new parliamentary correlation for?
ARPAS, in its editorial on March 5 , raises two possibilities: one is that Bukele uses it to govern democratically, solve the country’s problems and generate structural changes in favor of the people; and the other is that he uses it to implement his authoritarian, intransparent, populist and demagogic project.
If the president decides to do the former, he could initiate the dismantling of the neoliberal economic model. This would imply the following actions: approving a progressive fiscal policy where “those who have more pay more”, through direct taxes on the wealth of the richest, on large corporate profits, large financial transfers and luxury goods and services.
It would also include closing all “legal doors” to tax evasion and repealing or modifying the Tourism, Free Zones, Investments, International Services laws and others that allow tax avoidance or contain unjustified tax privileges for large companies. In addition, it would imply renationalising pensions, reviewing the other privatizations, and reversing the new privatization mechanism of “public-private partnerships” inherited from the previous government.
Other positive actions of the bukelista “supermajority” would be the approval of the General Water Law, the decriminalization of abortion on the grounds put forward by feminist organizations, the prohibition of agro-toxins and the ratification of constitutional reform that recognizes the human right to water and food. It could legislate to address the structural causes of poverty, violence, migration, environmental degradation and other structural problems.
Likewise, it could choose suitable persons such as magistrates of the Supreme Court, attorney general, human rights ombudsman, magistrates of the Court of Accounts, attorney general and members of the CNJ [National Judiciary Council].
If, on the contrary, Bukele uses the new parliamentary correlation negatively, he will ask his deputies to elect officials (magistrates, prosecutor, attorney, etc.) that kneel to his interests, instead of capable, proven and independent people. It will also deepen neoliberalism by passing special economic zones law, maintaining the laws of evasion and increasing fiscal regressiveness with increases to the VAT [Value Added Tax], fuel and other indirect taxes on consumption.
Additionally, it will further in-debt the country by acquiring million dollar loans with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international financial organizations that will impose draconian fiscal adjustments as a condition to disburse the funds. Logically, it would not approve the water law, the decriminalization of abortion and other necessary regulations. And the most dangerous thing would be for Bukele to change the democratic rules and maintain himself in power.
So what will really happen?
It is difficult to predict, but there are two things that inhibit optimism. The first is what has been seen in these twenty months of government: disrespect for laws and institutions, obscure management of public funds and lack of accountability, improvisation, confrontation, propaganda, etc .; and the second has to do with the initial measures already announced: approval of the special economic zones law and the contracting of a $1.3 or 2 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would place as conditions a VAT increase, raising gas taxes, eliminating families’ subsidies and other measures to “reduce public spending”.
The former suggests a danger that the new parliamentary correlation will help Bukele deepen an authoritarian, corrupt and demagogic style of government; and the latter points to the fact that the bukelista supermajority will deepen the neoliberal logic, the foreign indebtedness and fiscal adjustments that will affect a large majority of the population, especially the popular sectors and the middle classes.
“It is worth dreaming, but you cannot ask for pears from the elm tree,” says the aforementioned editorial. The only thing left is “to urge the population not to give the president a blank check and to demand that he govern according to the needs of the country and not for private interests.”