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El Salvador - Bukele running for reelection
Bukele will play into the regional cliche of a populist autocrat trying to extend his time in office. The region isn't pushing back.
President Nayib Bukele used the occasion of El Salvador’s independence day this past week to announce that he will be running for reelection in 2024. It was both totally expected and a bold move to consolidate power beyond his current term.
Running for reelection appears to be quite clearly against the Salvadoran constitution, and a video clip resurfaced last week of Bukele himself talking about the importance of that policy. However, Bukele controls a majority in the legislature and has replaced enough justices within the court system that he has practically guaranteed that they will rule that his reelection will be allowed and constitutional. He has the power to do what he wants.
The legal technicalities of how Bukele extends his time in office are less important than the fact he’s doing it. Whether it is done by court ruling or constitutional reform or popular referendum, it’s a problem. Many leaders have done some form of extending their time in office in recent Latin American history, and it almost always ends badly for the country.
Analysts, NGOs, businesspeople, and former presidents around the region are willing to call out the problem with this. Countries are not. El Faro’s newsletter this morning notes that no government in Central America has spoken out against Bukele’s proposed reelection. The Biden administration is holding back on criticism for the moment, though they have made clear statements in the past that this would be a break with Salvadoran democracy.
For many, including the US, it’s diplomatically sensitive to get involved with the debate this early in the process when there are so many other issues on the table. In addition, Bukele is the sort of populist who thrives on arguing with people and would probably welcome a bit of high profile international criticism that he can use as a foil. During his announcement, he weaved a narrative of the world against him and against El Salvador. Afterwards, he played the #fakenews card against those who were critical of the announcement.
For some leaders in the hemisphere, however, their reasons for not criticizing Bukele are less benign. Their party may be guilty of the same democratic malpractice, or they have hopes of engaging in a similar consolidation of power at some point in the future. Criticizing Bukele now leaves them open for charges of hypocrisy later, though that certainly didn’t stop Bukele, who once promised to be a one term leader while criticizing Hugo Chavez for extending his time in office.
Let’s face it: A lot of leaders wish they were Bukele today the same way many wished to emulate Chavez in 2005-06 when he ran for reelection. They wish they had 75%+ popularity and a deferential legislature and judiciary that allows them to do what they want. It certainly makes governing easier. Based on the poll numbers today and his control of all the institutions that could check his power, Bukele is the clear favorite for 2024 reelection if he chooses to run. But it’s not good for democracy long term, and even an extended honeymoon has to end at some point.