SAN SALVADOR – In the hours since El Salvador President Nayib Bukele announced he would seek re-election despite a constitutional ban, opinion quickly divided.
Those who want to give more time to the man who has arrested more than 50,000 people in the past six months for alleged gang connections voiced their support while a vocal minority who see it as one more unsurprising step toward authoritarianism rejected the move.
Bukele announced he would seek re-election in a televised speech Thursday night, El Salvador’s Independence Day, riding a wave of popularity from his crackdown on gangs.
Bukele’s current five-year term ends in 2024, but observers had long expected the announcement, especially since the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, handpicked by his supporters in congress, ruled last year that re-election was permitted and ordered the electoral court to allow it.
“I don’t understand that about the constitution, but the man is doing a good job, he‘s finishing with the gangs, and yes I support him,” said Estela Sánchez, a produce vendor in the San Salvador suburb of Santa Tecla.
Constitutional lawyers have said re-election violates at least four articles of the constitution, including one that limits the presidential term to five years and states that the person who serves as president will not continue in their functions for one day more.
Vice President Félix Ulloa, predictably, sees it differently. “Of course it isn’t unconstitutional,” Ulloa said. “One of the things that has concerned me my entire life has been to respect the rule of the democratic and constitutional state.”
However, some observers have voiced doubts for years about Bukele’s commitment to democratic institutions.
His popularity and sweeping electoral victories are unquestioned, but that power has been wielded to intimidate lawmakers -- he took soldiers into the Legislative Assembly when opponents balked at voting on part of his security plan -- to remove Supreme Court justices who had challenged some of his measures early in the COVID-19 pandemic and the attorney general.
Congresswoman Dina Argueta of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the party Bukele began his political career in, said that the announcement came as no surprise because Bukele had been working toward it. “However, we must establish that our constitution does not allow re-election in any moment,” she said.
Juan Pappier, senior investigator in Human Rights Watch Americas Division, has been a frequent Bukele critic and the human rights organization one of those that Bukele regularly rails against.
“This constitutional breach was predictable,” he said via Twitter. “El Salvador for some time has been on the path to be a dictatorship and many, for ideological blindness, cowardice, geopolitical interests or obsession with immigration did not want to raise the voice in time or help to stop it.”
Within El Salvador, the crackdown that began in late March after gangs killed 62 people in one day, has maintained its popularity despite a rising number of documented human rights violations. Nearly 53,000 people have been arrested since it was put into place March 27 and then renewed monthly ever since.
Human and civil rights organizations have documented more than 3,000. Still, recent polling has shown support for the measures, including suspending some constitutional rights under a state of exception, to be above 90%. Bukele’s own popularity has remained above 80%.
Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. government has been more critical of Bukele’s administration, sanctioning some members of his inner circle and accusing officials of exchanging benefits with gang leaders in return for keeping homicides relatively low during the first half of his term. Bukele has repeatedly denied any such pact, something his government has prosecuted officials from previous administrations for doing.
Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer with the nongovernmental watchdog Citizen Action, said “it is prohibited in the constitution, he has not right to seek re-election, that’s the rule. If he does it, it is contrary to the constitution and takes us closer to Nicaragua. It’s that simple.”
Nicaragua is Central America’s most ominous example. President Daniel Ortega was elected to his fourth consecutive term last November after jailing all of his serious potential opponents. But a constitutional ban on re-election did not stop former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández from seeking re-election either. A friendly court gave him the green light.
Still, Manuel Torres, a bank employee waiting for a bus Friday, was willing to give Bukele the benefit of the doubt.
“Some say it is not legal, we’ll have to see what happens,” Torres said. “There’s a lot of time before the elections, but I would vote for him.”