El Salvador - Bukele consolidates power

Within hours of taking power, Bukele's Congress used their new supermajority to reshape the judiciary and remove the attorney general.

With the new pro-Bukele Congress inaugurated, El Salvador's president wasted no time in consolidating control and removing institutional constraints to his power. I predicted Bukele would use his legislative election win to roll over the checks and balances in the country, but I'm still surprised by the speed and efficiency with which he pulled it off.

Within hours of taking power, Bukele's Congress used their new supermajority to remove five judges from the Constitutional Court. The justices were replaced (Bukele's opponents argue unconstitutionally) with allies of the president.

The Congress also forced out the country's attorney general, Raul Melara.  The attorney general had opened investigations into several allegations of corruption in the Bukele administration regarding Covid-related contracts and the unauthorized covert negotiations with gangs including MS-13. By installing a more friendly attorney general, Bukele has killed those ongoing investigations and guaranteed that future contracts and actions will not face potential prosecutions. He has also opened up the potential for prosecutions of his political opponents.

While many international organizations decried Bukele's abuses of power, domestic criticisms against Bukele's actions were limited to media outlets, NGOs and a few hundred protesters. A further crackdown against domestic political opponents including critical media outlets is practically inevitable in the coming months.

As InSight Crime writes,  Bukele's move doesn't just undermine democracy. It also damages the country's rule of law, something that can lead to greater insecurity down the line. Having politicized prosecutors and an unfairly stacked judicial branch will benefit organized crime.

The Biden administration has criticized Bukele's move. It disinvited him from the meeting of democracies. There is growing pressure to block IMF assistance to El Salvador. The potential for IMF action would put significant financial pressure on Bukele (El Salvador uses the US dollar and can't print more money for itself), but those sorts of sanctions may also lead to greater suffering among El Salvador's population and/or push Bukele to further embrace China for financial support.

Even if his management of the country is lousy, Bukele’s Twitter game remains strong. He compared the removal of the judges and prosecutors to President Biden’s commission studying Supreme Court reform and Trump’s push to get a new Supreme Court justice approved by the Senate prior to last November’s election. The fact that it’s easy to pick holes in Bukele’s attempts at equivalence doesn’t matter because he’s not trying to win a debate competition, but score short term points on social media and muddy the waters. In that, he succeeded.

Of course, there is a dark side to Bukele’s social media efforts including bots, manipulation and harassment of critics. Bukele’s snarky comments and occasionally light-hearted fun shouldn’t blind people to the fact that he and his advisors manage the social media effort strategically. It plays a role in his undermining of the country’s democracy.

El Salvador is just part of the regional trend. In recent months, Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei has also moved to stack the country's court system with judges that are favorable to him and other elite allies while removing those justices and prosecutors who want to target corruption and abuses of power. Honduras and Nicaragua already have de facto leaders who stole elections and removed institutional barriers to executive abuse of power and both are aiming to manipulate the electoral institutions this year to guarantee they can continue to control the political situation inn the country.

For years, analysts worried about state capture by organized crime in Central America. But it's not the Sinaloa Cartel or MS-13 that are taking over. Instead, political elites are capturing the state and and using the institutions of government to run their own criminal organizations. Those organizations sometimes cooperate with and sometimes compete with other non-state criminal organizations.

While there have been blows to democracy and rule of law across the region, Bukele's is different in that he won the most recent legislative elections and appears to have a popular mandate to act. The other leaders are generally unpopular and taking their undemocratic actions over the objections of a majority of the population. Bukele has pointed to his popularity and vote totals as an excuse that legitimates his actions. While he's wrong, it does mean he faces less opposition in the short term.

The weakening democracies and rising corruption in El Salvador and its neighbors are an argument for the Biden administration to place more attention and resources on the region. It is much harder to deliver aid while avoiding corrupt and compromised institutions, but there are plenty of non-governmental organizations that can use the support and do good with it. The US should actively support and defend media outlets and civil society organizations that defend democracy and human rights and expose corruption. The Biden administration should also press forward working with civil society groups around the region to with create an independent anti-corruption investigative group. That organization, while limited by its separation from government institutions, would serve as an external check on corruption and undemocratic actions and help build rule of law, even in countries where the political elite attempt to abuse and cling to power.

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