Q24N – Nayib Bukele entered the legislative palace surrounded by military personnel carrying long weapons. He walked in front of the benches before the incredulous gaze of the handful of deputies who were present in the room and sat in the chair of the president of the body, who was absent.
“Now I think it is very clear who is in control of the situation and the decision that we are going to make we are going to put in the hands of God,” he announced.
He was about to start a session that had no legal validity, but he took a moment to pray, covering his face. When he finished, he got up and left, accompanied by his escort.
That February 9, 2020, was the day that El Salvador was closest to a coup since the return of democracy, following the 1992 peace accords, which ended decades of civil war. Amid mounting international pressure and the response he may have received in his prayers, Bukele became convinced that the best thing to do was to drop his threats to forcibly displace opposition legislators, who were a majority in the unicameral Assembly.
To save time, he called a new session for the following week, in which he expected to be approved for a loan contracted with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). But the Supreme Court gave him the excuse for the withdrawal, declaring the convocation unconstitutional. In that case, he complied with the decision of the highest court in the country, something that he did not always do.
Many presidents could have suffered devastating consequences from a comparable advance on the Legislative Branch. But that’s not what happened to Bukele. On the contrary, the audacity of the decision consolidated his popularity among Salvadorans, who a year later decided to give him total control of the country.
“There is an authoritarian culture of a broad sector of Salvadoran society, which deep down longs for a leader who exercises power with bullying, who acts above the law with messianic airs,” Carlos Mauricio Hernández, professor of the Philosophy Department of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University. “On the other hand, the loss of prestige of the Legislative Organ is high. Until now, it has not approved constitutional reforms that translate into key social benefits. The 9F, although it was a reprehensible act from rationality, emotionally connected with the feelings of a wide sector of the population that repudiates the Legislative Assembly ”.
Nuevas Ideas, Bukele’s party, won 66% of the vote in last Sunday’s legislative elections. If its seats are added with those of other allied forces, it will have 64 of the 84 that make up the Assembly. A majority of more than two thirds, which enables it to pass any law, appoint judges to the Court and, eventually, promote a constitutional reform.
The reasons for the landslide
After decades of conservative governments, the victory of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the 2009 elections raised hopes in many Salvadorans. Mauricio Funes promised to end the corruption that had characterized the era of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and lift millions of people out of poverty with redistributive policies.
But neither he nor his successor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, lived up to expectations. After ten years of the left in power, El Salvador was still the same poor country, astonishingly violent and with a corrupt policy.
The disappointment and rejection of the entire ruling class was enormous. Thus the conditions were created for the emergence of a leader who seemed to come from another galaxy. A young publicist – he was 37 when he took office – and with a speech and an image that have nothing to do with what is associated with conventional politics, Bukele became an incredibly attractive character for millions of people.
“The fundamental reason for this change in electoral preferences is due to the fact that both ARENA and the FMLN failed in a scandalous manner in the three great flags that mark the Salvadoran electorate: bread, peace and work,” Hernández continued. Neither in the 20 years of governments of the right nor in the ten years of the left was a society achieved where the majority had decent living conditions, security or jobs with fair wages. It is not by chance that the FMLN is almost disappearing ”.
After a brief stint as mayor of San Salvador, and with the help of a borrowed party, Bukele won the February 2019 presidential elections by more than 20 points ahead of the ARENA and FMLN candidates. Those who expected a president different from the previous ones, had it from the first minute.
Instead of wasting time going through the labyrinthine paths of the state bureaucracy to implement his policies, he began ruling through Twitter.
From dismissals of officials linked to previous governments to infrastructure works, the orders are published on their social network account before they are in the official gazette.
By that same means he communicates with his ministers, who respond obediently to him in front of the entire tweetosphere. Bukele became the first “millennial populist” in Latin America.