El Salvador has a very serious gang violence problem. Their crime rate is one of the highest in the world, and there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in the country.[i] This has been a hot political issue and President Nayib Bukele, elected in February of 2019, seeks to put an end to the bloodshed. Nayib is only 38 years old and has made it one of his major campaign promises to take down the gangs by any means possible.
In order to take down the gangs, Bukele is pushing for a loan to be taken out in order to cover the increasing costs of arming the police. Many members of the parliament did not show up to debate the bill, meaning they could not vote on it. During Bukele’s speech for the bill, many soldiers and armed policemen came into the parliament. In addition to this show of force inside the legislative building, there were 50,000 protestors in the street backing Bukele.[ii]
Bukele’s actions here have been criticized across the board as a violation of democracy. By bringing armed police and the military into parliament, he has, in a way, threatened the safety of the legislators. Beyond this, Bukele has gone so far as to call on the protestors to storm the parliament if no action is taken on his loan plan within a week[iii]. These actions are consistent with those of a burgeoning authoritarian and violate the democratic process.
A transition away from democracy can be marked by many indicators, and this action by Bukele can fit a couple of definitions for a shift towards authoritarian rule. The two indicators that are most relevant to the actions taken in El Salvador are those of “Rejection of democratic rules of the game”[iv] and “Toleration or encouragement of violence.”[v] The actions taken by Bukele can clearly be seen as a rejection of the democratic rules of the game in the violation of the powers of the president and the powers of the parliament. The rules of the game dictate that while Bukele can put forth a loan plan and debate its necessity to the parliament, the parliament has a final vote to decide whether or not they plan on putting it to action. By pushing too hard for his plan to go through, the President is overstepping his bounds as executive leader of the country. This denies the democratic norms of the country and is overall a steppingstone to an authoritarian regime.
The second indicator that Bukele has hit is the encouragement of violence. Although he is not expressly calling for violence in his actions, he both used the veiled threat of violence to the parliament and called upon the citizens to take action against their government. He event went as far as to tell the legislators that the people have a right to “insurrection.”[vi] Firstly, the display of force using the armed police and military in the parliament is a veiled threat to those voting on his plan. It is never good when a President must resort to flashing guns around parliament to get his plans passed and shows that he is willing to incur violence in order to get his way. Secondly, by reminding the representatives that the people have a right to rise up Bukele is calling for violence. Although not outwardly asking for people to take action against their government, he is still implying that they could overthrow the sitting parliament. Bukele’s actions in the parliament can be seen as a strong-arm tactic used by authoritarians in order to get their way, and it is evidenced by the relevance to two indicators of a rising authoritarian regime.
Unfortunately, this does not look good for El Salvador. Bukele is headed down a more authoritarian track, and the country’s democracy may not be able to withstand his attacks. Will El Salvador’s democracy still remain standing following the 5-year term of Bukele? Or will the culture and norms shift towards a more authoritarian regime following his precedents? Either way, it is certain that this is a powerful event in the history of El Salvador. Although the actions taken by Bukele are meant to stop the violence in the country, it is to be seen if his actions of casting aside democratic norms and encouraging violent uprising actually increase the danger in El Salvador.
“Armed Soldiers Enter El Salvador Parliament.” BBC News, February 10, 2020, sec. Latin America & Caribbean. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-51439020.
“El Salvador President’s Power Play Stokes Democracy Concerns.” Reuters, February 10, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-elsalvador-politics-idUSKBN2042M4.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown, 2018.
“Sharp Rise in El Salvador Violence.” BBC News,
September 2, 2015, sec. Latin America & Caribbean.
[i] “Sharp Rise in El Salvador Violence,” BBC News, September 2, 2015, sec. Latin America & Caribbean, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-34124090.
[ii] “Armed Soldiers Enter El Salvador Parliament,” BBC News, February 10, 2020, sec. Latin America & Caribbean, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-51439020.
[iii] “Armed Soldiers Enter El Salvador Parliament.”
[iv] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018), 23.
[v] Levitsky and Ziblatt, 24.
[vi] “El Salvador President’s Power Play Stokes Democracy Concerns,” Reuters, February 10, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-elsalvador-politics-idUSKBN2042M4.