WHEN NAYIB BUKELE’S New Ideas party won a sweeping majority in El Salvador’s national elections in February, fans of democracy held their breath. Mr Bukele (pictured on election day), who with a 90% approval rating is the most popular president in Latin America, has shown little regard for checks and balances since he came to power in 2019. On May 1st, the day new lawmakers first took their seats in the legislative assembly, fears about the millennial president appeared to be well founded. The new assembly voted to dismiss the five judges who sit in the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and the attorney-general. Mr Bukele, a bombastic tweeter, crowed: “And the Salvadoran people, through their representatives, said ‘DISMISSED!’”
The assembly’s decision was quickly declared unconstitutional by the court itself. A few hundred protesters took to the streets to denounce “the coup”. One banner read “absolute power fucks us all”. Yet, flanked by armed guards, five new judges and a new attorney-general were escorted to their desks. How the political clash is resolved may determine the fate of El Salvador’s young democracy. If the decision is not reversed, Mr Bukele will control all three branches of the state.
Since he was elected for a five-year term, Mr Bukele has made few attempts to hide his authoritarian urges. He has shown little tolerance for people with different views and rails against businessmen and journalists. He has shown little patience for institutions. For example, he forced staffing changes at the national radio and television stations. Even more worryingly, he has a history of using force when things do not go his way. In February 2020 he entered the legislative assembly, which was then dominated by opposition parties, with gun-toting soldiers to intimidate lawmakers into voting for a security loan.
Sympathisers say Mr Bukele needed to be firm to get anything done, as the legislature was dominated by his opponents, the two traditional parties who had alternated being in power since the end of the civil war. They said once New Ideas had more seats Mr Bukele would not have to be so heavy-handed. It has not worked out that way. In the election New Ideas got fully 56 of 84 seats—more than any modern government. That means the government can pass whatever laws it likes. Mr Bukele’s super-majority would have allowed the assembly to pick a new attorney-general and five Supreme Court judges this year. His actions suggest, therefore, that winning more power will not make him less of a bully.
Mr Bukele dismissed the judges because they ruled that some of the harsh measures he took during the pandemic were unconstitutional. These measures included soldiers and police picking people off the streets and throwing them into quarantine. Lawmakers accused Rául Melara, the attorney-general whom they also voted to remove, of being aligned with the opposition. Mr Melara, who is friendly with the United States, has not shied away from investigating claims of corruption within Mr Bukele’s government.
Outside observers have criticised the judge purge. Juan González, an envoy of President Joe Biden, tweeted “Así no se hace” (“That’s not the way you do things”). Kamala Harris, Mr Biden’s vice-president, tweeted that the United States had “deep concerns” about democracy in El Salvador. Antony Blinken, the American secretary of state, called Mr Bukele to stress the importance of the separation of powers. Human Rights Watch, an NGO, suggested that Mr Bukele’s “assault on democracy” should make it harder for El Salvador to obtain loans from international organisations. A year ago the IMF approved $389m in emergency financial assistance; the country has also been angling for a loan.
Yet Mr Bukele seems to shrug off criticism from abroad. He said it was no concern of the rest of the world that El Salvador was “cleaning” its house. Few Salvadorans seem to disagree with him. Many accuse his opponents of being corrupt. In some cases, they have a point: three of the previous four presidents have been investigated for corruption and one is now in jail.
Mr Bukele’s supporters point to tangible things he has done for them, such as laptops for students and food parcels for many families during the pandemic (paid for by taxpayers). At 28%, support in El Salvador for democracy as the preferred form of government is the lowest in Latin America, jointly with Guatemala. And with Central America in the middle of another migration crisis, Mr Bukele can always hope that those who dislike his clenched-fist tactics will up sticks and leave.