Why Salvadorans love their populist president, Nayib Bukele
OOUTSIDE A SURVEY in El Salvador’s capital Jennifer Vásquez, a 36-year-old water seller, explains why she voted for the candidates of New Ideas, the president’s party, which is only a few years older than her. “Nayib Bukele did things that no president has ever done before,” she exclaims, wearing a T– shirt the sky blue of the evening of Mr Bukele. “We have received food packages, including tuna and rice, and he will send computers to my children. “
Most voters in the country of 6.5 million seem just as enamored. New Ideas won a landslide victory in the legislative and municipal elections on February 28. The party, which was founded in 2018, too late for previous general elections, won at least 56 of the 84 assembly seats, giving it a two-thirds majority.
The result shattered El Salvador’s political duopoly. Since the end of the civil war in 1992, politics has been dominated by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist party from guerrilla groups, and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), a conservative party founded by a former soldier to oppose these guerrillas. Now these parties have fewer than two dozen lawmakers among them.
At first glance, Mr. Bukele does not appear to be a caudillo. The 39-year-old, who was elected president in 2019, wears his baseball cap inside out and posts his every thought on social media. A shrewd publicist, he has captivated a population sick with corruption. (Three of the four previous presidents have been investigated for corruption; one is now in jail.)
Mr Bukele’s approval rating of around 90% is higher than that of any other Latin American leader. Critics see his ascendancy as a danger to democracy. It controls two branches of the state: the legislature and the executive. His super-majority gives him a chance to shape the third: the Legislature must choose a new attorney general and five Supreme Court justices this year.
Since taking office, Mr. Bukele has shown little respect for the institutions. “He treats laws like we treat rules of conduct,” says Nelson Rauda, journalist. In February last year, frustrated by lawmakers’ refusal to approve the budget for his security program, Mr Bukele entered Congress with armed soldiers. In April, after an increase in the murder rate, his government forced hundreds of prisoners (mostly gang members) to shake their hands tied behind their backs, naked except for their underwear and masks. facial. Mr Bukele tweeted the photo, unimpressed by the risk that crowded prisoners could spread covid-19.
He has demonized all who oppose him, including businessmen, journalists and politicians; a fact some blame for the filming of two FMLN activists in January, the worst act of political violence since the end of the civil war. And like other populist leaders, he fosters mistrust of democratic institutions. Last week he warned, without evidence, of possible fraud, and just before the polls closed, he broke election law by giving a press conference urging people to vote.
Those in power say the election result will appease Mr Bukele (besides tweeting furiously about his detractors, he carefully monitors his approval ratings). Felix Ulloa, the vice-president, says that the “resistance” of the bureaucracy and the assembly “has generated in him an attitude of confrontation”. Others are more worried. “We will see how he governs once there are no more obstacles,” says Alex Segovia, economist and former FMLN official.
Mr. Bukele has a lot to do. The World Health Organization has praised El Salvador’s handling of covid-19 – the government has invested in hospitals and distributed money to ease the economic pain of the pandemic. However, it also imposed lockdown rules so severe that the Supreme Court has ruled some of them unconstitutional. And these measures have contributed to an economic contraction of almost 9% in 2020, among the worst in the region. Public debt is around 90% of GDP. Crime, corruption and poverty remain entrenched.
Mr. Bukele claims to have no ideology; he says he just wants to get things done. But he has no plan, says Bertha Deleón, his former lawyer who cut off contact with the president after his arms antics in February. “It’s all pure publicity,” she says. Its advisers are generally yes-men. Some are his brothers: one leads his party; another carried out his presidential campaign. Its record so far is decidedly mixed.
Take the corruption, which he has sworn to stem. At the start of his term, he set up an independent anti-corruption body. But his government has produced no evidence of how it spent the hundreds of millions of dollars it received from donors during the pandemic. When the anti-corruption body sent evidence to the attorney general to suggest that the aid was mismanaged, the government obstructed the investigation. In November, police, who, like the military, now appear to be loyal to Bukele rather than the state, barred officers from entering the health ministry to gather more evidence relating to employment contracts. procurement, including those with companies owned by government officials.
Since Mr Bukele took office, the murder rate has dropped, as he often reminds voters. He gave the security forces better pay and more sophisticated equipment. He also scattered them across the country in areas where crime is particularly high. But criminologists point out that the homicide rate has been falling since 2015, before Mr Bukele was in charge (see graph). The International Crisis Group, a think tank, says one of the reasons crime has declined is that the state may have made deals with gangs. Such agreements often end up backfiring. Meanwhile, extortion remains more common than ever. According to one estimate, it costs El Salvador 3% of GDP one year.
When asked why they love Mr. Bukele, some Salvadorans referred to eye-catching infrastructure projects. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, crowds were snapping photos of a new road leading to “Surf City,” a coastal strip that hopes to become a tourism hub.
Others mention handouts: Since the start of the pandemic, the state has given many people food packages and lump sums of $ 300. He also pledged to donate laptops to 1.2 million students, much to the delight of people like Ms. Vásquez. It remains to be seen how all this will be paid for, perhaps with a loan from the IMF.
The lack of checks and balances is a concern in any country. This is doubly the case in El Salvador, given Mr. Bukele’s track record and his unprecedented power. Few other politicians try to stand up to him. The only source of criticism appears to come from the United States, where President Joe Biden’s new administration has expressed concerns over Mr. Bukele’s tactics.
Salvadorians may be willing to ignore the caudillo-as trends if they continue to feel that he is watching over them. Many have low expectations of their politicians anyway: at 28%, support for democracy as the preferred form of government is the lowest in Latin America (along with Guatemala). “We have seen this story many times in this region before,” said Celia Medrano, candidate for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a regional body. It refers to the populists who end up sacking their country, like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. “The president wants and can make history, but must learn from history,” she thinks. Unfortunately, new ideas can turn out to be the result of old tricks.■
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the title “Le caudillo du millénaire”