A Vote for the World’s “Coolest Dictator”

Come Sunday the 4th of February, voters in the small Central American nation of El Salvador will go to the polls to cast their votes to elect a president, vice president and all 60 seats in its unicameral legislature. The man towering in these polls is incumbent president Nayib Bukele.  Both controversial and popular, Bukele is responsible for changing the socio-political ecosystem of his country.

His unorthodox policies on addressing internal security challenges facing El Salvador, has become a model to embrace and adopt in several countries in Latin American and the Caribbean. If he is returned to power on February 4, it might create a political precedence with far reaching consequences. His brand of politics that can be termed as “democratic authoritarianism” may assume mainstream acceptability.

The man of the moment 

Nayib Bukele is loved and loathed in equal measures – both at home and abroad. This self-styled mega politician is credited to have brought order to a nation that was synonymous with anarchy. Prior to his election as the president of El Salvador, the country was literally taken hostage by marauding gangs. For decades, the two main criminal gangs in the country Mara Salvatrucha –aka MS-13 – and Barrio 18, with an estimated combined membership of 70,000 went about raping, kidnapping, killing their own citizens with absolute impunity. For all intent and purposes it was a constant reign of terror imposed by the gangs on El Salvador’s hapless citizens.

To make matters worse, these violent gangs were alleged to have been in collusion with the country’s previous government. As the country reeled under the wanton violence perpetrated by gangs the economy went into a nosedive and hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The gang menace was also responsible for forcing plenty of its citizens join migrant caravans to the United States, ostensibly to escape the horrors inflicted by the gangs on their lives.  

In late March 2022, there would be a dramatic turnaround in the fate of El Salvador and its kowtowed citizens who groaned under the pervasive violence inflicted by the two dreaded gangs. That month, the country’s President Nayib Bukele introduced a national state of exception.

It meant although El Salvador was a democracy and the president was elected by the electorate, he had the power to impose authoritarian measures to safeguard the country and its citizens who had fallen prey to the criminal gangs.

The “state of exception”

Under Bukele’s Régimen de Excepción (State of Exception) and the Guerra Contra las Pandillas (War Against the Gangs), some key civil liberties of the citizens of the country such as: the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer were suspended.  The suspension of due process – a hallmark in any democracy – included among other things, the right of government to hold a person without charges for three days, which was later extended to fifteen days and then renewed regularly- leaving the arrested individual in prison indefinitely.

Bukele “tough-on-crime” governance model saw some one hundred thousand El Salvadorans arrested and sent to strictly controlled state prisons. Thanks to these controversial measures, currently there are some 2% of El Salvador’s population are behind bars which includes some two thousand children. 

With the bulk of gang members behind bars, there was a sharp fall in the crime statistics. During his presidency, Bukele is credited to have transformed El Salvador from “a country infamous for its record on murder and gangs to a nation with one of the lowest homicide rates in the Americas.” To put things in perspective, in the year 2015, El Salvador was the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere, with a murder rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2022, following Bukele’s crackdown, that figure had fallen to just 7.8. A miracle of sorts even by the most conservative estimates. 

Bukele’s underwriting of the “state of exception” resulted in the country’s once terrorized citizens to venture out, investments returned, and so much so, once infamous for being the homicidal capital of the world, El Salvador has held an international beauty pageant – the 2023 Miss Universe contest

All this razzmatazz and the sharp decline in violence following relentless assault on criminal gangs has made Bukele an unlikely hero at home. Basking in this newfound glory he has peddled a new nom de guerre for himself on social media – Bukele the “world’s coolest dictator”.

The fallout

While an unexpected normalcy returned to El Salvador under Bukele’s criminal reform undertaking, it also has raised some serious questions about the rights of the country’s citizens, free speech, human rights violations and the smothering of democratic values, ideals and near-total curtailment of institutions responsible for protecting individual liberty.  

The clearest and most vocal criticism against Bukele’s policies has been his take on civil liberties in El Salvador. Critiquing of El Salvador’s state of exception, Amnesty International has consistently highlighted the excesses in human rights violation overseen by a democratically elected president. It has argued: Behind the veil of popularity, Bukele has adopted policies and practices that are not only abusive and arbitrary but also threaten civic space. 

Many critics with their nose close to the ground realities in Bukele’s El Salvador are at pains to highlight the wrongful use of criminal justice system, emasculation of the judiciary, routine abuse and torture of those incarcerated. Most worrying of all, thousands of those arrested and now languishing in its prisons for years have little or no criminal background or links with the gangs. But they have no recourse to prove their innocence and prevented from using any agencies to validate their case. There have been reports of excesses of violence towards the imprisoned leading to hundreds of custodial deaths. 

The state of emergency that underwrites suspension of constitutional guarantees, including freedom of association, and an alleged offender’s right to state-sponsored legal defense in court has led to a fearful state. Simply put, Bukele is responsible for withering the country’s nascent delicate democratic culture. This is a scenario reminiscence of El Salvador’s civil war years between 1979-1992.

As Ana Piquer, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Americas recently put it: “What we are witnessing in El Salvador [under Bukele’s state of exception] is a tragic repetition of history, where state violence is gradually replacing gang violence, leaving the same vulnerable communities trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and despair.” 

Do the voters care?

What do voters make of Bukele’s record in office? While there’s an outcry outside El Salvador for the gross human rights violation overseen by the current president and his critical policies, the country’s citizens appear blasé to these allegations.  

Despite his controversial policies that has pushed El Salvador to a state of “endless emergency”, Bukele remains highly popular in the country. While he has his critics, Bukele nonetheless is regarded a national hero for turning things around.  Bukele’s success in tackling El Salvador’s protracted criminality and criminal gangs has earned him broad support across the board – in rural and urban areas and among people of all social classes and education levels. According to a recent pre-poll study,  he has the support of  7 to 9 of every 10 El Salvadoran voters.

Is Sunday’s election going to be a walk in the park for Bukele then? His next closest candidate, Manuel Flores, belonging to the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), enjoys 4% support in the popularity index. With an approval rating of 82% , Bukele is unlikely to experience defeat at the polls. 

Not a man to leave everything to chance, the “world’s coolest dictator” is also playing on the fear factor. He has warned his countrymen, if for some reason his New Ideas party is not voted into power, it would mean a return of the gangs. To many Salvadorans this is finding yourself in a proverbial trap –you’re damned if you voted Bukele back into power and damned if you didn’t.

[Photo: Supporters of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s re-election campaign. Credit: Casa Presidencial El Salvador, via Wikimedia Commons]

Amalendu Misra is a professor of international politics, Lancaster University, United Kingdom and most recently the author of, On Beheading, New York: Palgrave. He’s on Twitter @MisraAmalendu. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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