‘Blank check’ for El Salvador’s Bukele? Court dismissals spark concern.

Secretaria de Prensa de La Presidencia/Reuters
El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele takes part in a meeting with accredited ambassadors in El Salvador, at the Presidential House in San Salvador May 3, 2021.

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Two years ago, when El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele was elected, “there were three separate branches of government” in the country, says Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Now,” Mr. Thale says, “there’s one.”

Why We Wrote This

What happens when threats to democratic norms have democratic support? That familiar, difficult dilemma is playing out in El Salvador, critics of the country’s wildly popular president say.

Last weekend, when El Salvador’s newly elected legislature took its seats, it voted to dismiss five Supreme Court justices and the attorney general, replacing them with Bukele sympathizers. The move prompted concern from critics at home and officials abroad, who had already feared the young president was adopting an authoritarian leadership style. 

Those hoping El Salvador can bolster its democratic institutions face a difficulty: the government’s popularity. Mr. Bukele himself enjoys approval ratings of nearly 90%, and his alliance now holds a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly.

Still, there are levers for change, observers say, pointing to past examples. Other countries in the region “started down these paths toward concentrating power in one branch or another,” says Leonor Arteaga Rubio, previously a deputy in the Salvadoran Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. “They aren’t perfect parallels, but due to some kind of intervention – most often citizen, sometimes international – they were able to get their democracies back on course.”

When Nayib Bukele was voted El Salvador’s new president in 2019, he had popular backing, but little support in the government. Two years later, the landscape of democracy has changed dramatically.

Saturday, in the recently elected Legislative Assembly’s first session, his alliance’s newfound supermajority swiftly dismissed five Supreme Court justices and the attorney general, replacing them with Bukele sympathizers.

In 2019, “there were three separate branches of government” in El Salvador, says Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America. “Now there’s one.”

Why We Wrote This

What happens when threats to democratic norms have democratic support? That familiar, difficult dilemma is playing out in El Salvador, critics of the country’s wildly popular president say.

The moves raised immediate condemnation, both abroad and at home. There was little regard for the constitutional process in removing and replacing the justices, critics say, confirming long-held concerns that Mr. Bukele was adopting an authoritarian leadership style. But his vast popularity – with nearly 90% approval in recent polls – and wins through free and fair democratic elections complicate efforts to convince Salvadorans that this concentration of power is risky for the country’s democratic health.

“The panorama is really challenging, but there are things that can be done” to correct course, says Leonor Arteaga Rubio, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation in Washington, and previously a deputy in the Salvadoran Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. Other countries and international organizations need to condition aid packages and consider individual sanctions, she says, and Salvadoran civil society should strengthen civic education and engagement.

“What worries me most right now is the citizen backing” for actions that weaken institutions and do away with checks and balances, she says. “I fear that when Salvadorans realize what has happened, it will be too late…. They will stick with him as long as he is resolving their problems.”   

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Representatives react as they vote for the removal of Supreme Court judges in the Salvadoran legislature in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 1, 2021. The dismissal of five judges and the attorney general has prompted international criticism.

“FIRED!”

Mr. Bukele has gained widespread support for his populist agenda, including an iron-fist approach to fighting organized crime, promises to weed out corruption, and his tough handling of COVID-19. Many voters appreciate his rejection of the two main political parties that led the country since the end of its 12-year civil war in 1992.

The media-savvy leader tapped into that support to defend his party’s moves over the weekend. Directly following the vote to replace the five judges serving in the constitutional chamber of the top court, he tweeted that it came down to the will of the people: “And the people of El Salvador, through their representatives, said: FIRED!”

For Guadalupe Alfaro, a vendor in the capital San Salvador, the dismissals were the right decision.

“I don’t get why there’s so much drama around this,” says Ms. Alfaro, adding that previous governments replaced public officials, too. These judges “were saying everything was unconstitutional and it’s hard to govern when you’re dealing with enemies. It’s fine to have opposition, but not enemies.” Legislators argued the justices had unconstitutionally impeded the government’s ability to adequately respond to COVID-19 by ruling against some of Mr. Bukele’s pandemic restrictions.

Marcela Galeas, a lawyer and analyst in San Salvador, fears citizens supporting the judicial overhaul aren’t thinking long-term. “We have a climate of judicial insecurity, and constitutionally speaking it’s made the guarantee of individual rights more vulnerable,” Ms. Galeas says. “This near-absolute power means the law can be applied disproportionately and anyone of us could be at its mercy.”

Mr. Bukele isn’t writing a new playbook. Critics point to examples of countries that have eliminated checks and balances of the judiciary in the past as cautionary tales. From Nicaragua to Venezuela to Honduras, there are plenty of examples of governments manipulating the judicial branch – often with popular support – to extend presidential term limits or wipe out the opposition.

“Do all presidents seek to have allies on the Supreme Court and in the attorney general? Yes. That’s a political reality,” says Mr. Thale. But “most presidents and governments recognize there needs to be a degree of independence, and Bukele has abandoned that.”

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
People hold signs reading "Respect for the constitution," as they protest against the removal of Supreme Court judges and the attorney general by El Salvador's legislature, in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 2, 2021.

Riding high…for how long?

But it isn’t a given that support will stay high, Mr. Thale warns. “Presidents who adopt these kind of measures tend to lose popularity or support, because they don’t succeed in improving daily life.”

That’s key to the international community’s next move, observers say. Many are calling for the International Monetary Fund to pause negotiations on a key loan, or for the United States to condition its development aid on El Salvador’s commitment to its institutions’ democratic health. But these are tricky options: Withholding loans or aid could increase economic instability, generating more migration. Yet the instability and political impunity that may emerge from meddling with the judiciary could drive even more down the line.

And for some, the immediate fallout from the judicial overhaul has raised the most concern. Mr. Bukele doubled down on his contempt for the international outcry the day after the vote: “To our friends in the international community: We want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other, and help where we can. Our doors are more open than ever,” he posted on Twitter. “But with all due respect: We’re cleaning our house … and it’s none of your business.”

On Monday, the president met with foreign diplomats in San Salvador for a meeting that attendees said they were promised was private. It ended up aired on national TV.

Andrea Alvarez, a homemaker in San Salvador, says she is on board with dismissing the judges and the attorney general – it’s the way things go in politics, even if it is generating “uncertainty,” she says. But the president’s reaction to the international community has her concerned.

“You can’t act this way … that doesn’t make our country look good. I think this can have some very negative consequences in terms of diplomatic relations.”

Stark choices

Other countries in the region have started down concerning paths for democracy, yet managed to change course. An extreme case is Chile: During dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule, international pressure led his government to allow a 1988 plebiscite, which resulted in the end of his rule. Others point to more recent examples like Bolivians taking to the street to protest President Evo Morale’s claims to winning a fourth consecutive term in a contested vote, or Peruvians last year turning out en masse to protest what was largely viewed as a legislative coup, after congressmen swiftly ousted a president on questionable charges.

“These countries started down these paths toward concentrating power in one branch or another,” says Ms. Arteaga. “They aren’t perfect parallels, but due to some kind of intervention – most often citizen, sometimes international – they were able to get their democracies back on course.”

She hasn’t lost hope for El Salvador, but she’s disappointed.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it pains me that we haven’t learned as a country the high cost of giving a blank check to a president,” she says. “The themes of delinquency, crime, and poverty are really strong in El Salvador right now. And citizens are prioritizing their survival over themes of democracy.”

Consolidating power and weakening institutions are “abstract concepts compared to a president who arrives with food and financial aid,” Ms. Arteaga says. “That’s how they survive.”

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