El Salvador’s Bukele consolidates unchecked power

In what may prove a devil’s pact, Salvadorans have exchanged their constitutional checks and balances for a restoration of security on the streets.

Bukele campaigning in 2024 for reelection in El Salvador
President Nayib Bukele, 42, was virtually assured of a reelection in 2024 after his brutally effective crackdown on El Salvador’s criminal gangs. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Mass-scale gang violence had turned El Salvador into a hellish place to live
  • The government resorted to undemocratic measures to restore order 
  • President Bukele used his popularity to rig the system toward autocratic rule

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele swept to reelection on February 4, 2024, despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms, and his New Ideas party won a supermajority of seats in the Legislative Assembly. Voters rewarded the incumbent for dramatically improving the country’s internal security situation, overlooking that he had crimped civil liberties and eroded constitutional checks and balances in the process. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortunes, President Bukele is poised to hold onto power for the foreseeable future and will continue to reshape the Salvadoran political system to serve himself.

The landslide with question marks

Mr. Bukele’s landslide victory was a foregone conclusion: he enjoys widespread support for having drastically curbed gang violence; he has skillfully cultivated a reputation as a competent and effective leader; and he ran against an opposition in disarray. However, even in this context, the president’s margin of victory was shockingly large. Official results, however dubious, show that he won 83 percent of the vote to serve a second five-year term. 

In the victory speech in which he boasted of “pulverizing” the opposition, President Bukele made the controversial claim that El Salvador would be the first country with “a one-party democratic system.” There will be little resistance to the president and his New Ideas party. After a vote count plagued by irregularities, New Ideas appears to have obtained 54 seats in the country’s 60-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly. In comparison, the once mighty right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party and former insurgent group-turned-political party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were left with two seats and none, respectively.

Deepening New Ideas’ control over the Central American nation, the ruling party went on to capture 27 of 44 municipalities in the March 3 municipal elections, with the rival alliance winning 16 of the remaining 17.

Although no one denies that President Bukele won, the February electoral process was marred by technological and logistical glitches, irregularities and claims of fraud. The electronic system for transmitting the results of the vote partially collapsed, and the head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal speculated that it may have been intentionally sabotaged.

Since taking office in 2019, President Bukele has introduced broad structural changes in the system to erode checks and balances on the executive. 

In its preliminary report, the Electoral Observation Mission from the Organization of American States concluded that “the implementation of technology in this electoral process was not successful” while noting that “only 56 percent of the polling stations observed were able to complete the counting process and the transmission of results in accordance with the established procedures.” Many precincts lacked physical ballots, materials to print the tally sheets and paper to log copies of the vote count. Some poll center volunteers reported official computers double-logging ballots.

Steps toward ‘electoralism’

None of this comes as a surprise to observers of Salvadoran politics. Under President Bukele, the country has backslid into what political scientists term “electoral authoritarianism”: a form of government in which rulers periodically hold superficially free elections that lack genuine democratic contest. This type of regime abuses the pretense of democratic legitimacy to simultaneously restrict political freedoms and manipulate the electoral process to ensure a favored outcome. They systematically violate minimum democratic standards to perpetuate their hold on power.

As detailed in this author’s 2021 GIS report, Mr. Bukele has introduced broad structural changes in the system to erode checks and balances on the executive since taking office in 2019 – from curtailing judicial independence to intimidating critics and the political opposition. Immediately following the 2021 legislative elections in which New Ideas won a supermajority, the party voted to remove five magistrates of the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber and the attorney general, all of whom were critics of Mr. Bukele. Another significant legislative decision forced judges and prosecutors to retire once they turn 60 or after completing 30 years of service, affecting one-third of all lower court sitting judges and a similar share of prosecutors. That allowed President Bukele to fill the ranks with loyalists.

Mr. Bukele leveraged this judicial control to circumvent a constitutional requirement that former presidents must wait a decade before seeking a second term. In a controversial decision made right after the president replaced the constitutional chamber judges, the court ruled that consecutive reelection was a “human right” and could not be denied. It will be no surprise if President Bukele eventually pushes to scrap term limits altogether.

Another institutional manipulation aimed at expanding the president’s power was the 2023 electoral reform, which shrunk the number of municipalities from 262 to 44 and the number of legislative seats from 84 to 60. That allowed the government to redraw and malapportion districts (gerrymandering – a practice that is more difficult under El Salvador’s system of proportional representation than under the first-past-the-post systems of the United States or the United Kingdom). The reform also changed the seat allocation formula to favor larger parties.

Read more on Latin America’s governance challenges

President Bukele enjoys turning the tables on critics of his administration’s anti-democratic actions to bolster his popular appeal. He promotes himself on social media as “the world’s coolest dictator” and “Philosopher King.”

Gang crackdowns

At the same time, the president has brought about one of the most spectacular declines in violent crime anywhere in the world, with El Salvador’s homicide rate declining from among the highest in the world in 2019, at 47 per 100,000, to the second-lowest in the Americas today, at 2.4 per 100,000. 

His government achieved this undeniably impressive result through a variety of methods but scored the most remarkable success since 2022 by pursuing the mano dura (iron fist) crackdowns against the country’s most notorious street gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. This is what has made Mr. Bukele so wildly popular among his countrymen and what has made the “Salvadoran security model” increasingly tempting for leaders in other violence-tormented countries to emulate. However, the strategy is also very controversial.

A presidential decree establishing a state of exception allowed the government to suspend basic civil rights, including free speech and the right to protest, and mobilize the armed forces to carry out mass arrests.

Between 2019 and 2022, the Salvadoran government halved the country’s homicide rate. Formally, it relied on the Territorial Control Plan (TCP), a combination of preventative and repressive measures aimed at organized criminal groups. However, reporting from the investigative website El Faro (The Lighthouse) showed that the Bukele government had reached secret agreements with MS-13 and Barrio 18 by which the gangs would engage in less violence in exchange for more flexible prison conditions.

Imprisoned in El Salvador
Tecoluca, Feb. 6, 2024: Inmates in a Salvadoran “counter-terrorism confinement center,” Latin America’s largest penitentiary. It was inaugurated in 2023 as part of the government’s crackdown on gangs. Human rights organizations maintain that many people are held there without sufficient evidence. © Getty Images

Things changed after a spike in murders in March 2022. In response to the murders, the Legislative Assembly approved a presidential decree establishing a state of exception – since renewed 24 times – which allowed the government to suspend basic civil rights, including free speech and the right to protest, and mobilize the armed forces to carry out mass arrests. The government has used these powers to jail more than 77,000 suspects, giving El Salvador the world’s highest incarceration rate, and, in many cases, has held mass trials of up to 900 defendants, locking up many in a new “megaprison” built for 40,000 detainees.

While this sweeping crackdown on gangs has certainly been effective at reducing violent crime, human rights groups have argued that thousands of individuals have been arrested arbitrarily. The government itself acknowledged this when it freed around 7,000 people.

Ultimately, Salvadoran voters have decided that the president’s illiberal designs are a small price to pay for a radical improvement in public safety.



President Bukele will enjoy almost unchecked power in his second term. The Legislative Assembly is likely to rubber-stamp his agenda; loyalists staff the judiciary, while the opposition lacks both formal representation and credibility among voters to push back. The ruling party will be able to approve loans, authorize debt issuance and international treaties, renew the state of emergency, and elect the attorney general, human rights ombudsman, Supreme Court justices and Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates without any opposition input or negotiation. All this suggests President Bukele will consolidate the power of state institutions in his hands.

Most likely: A long period of strongman rule

President Bukele seems set to remain in power far beyond his second term. In many ways, his tactics and trajectory follow Latin America’s long and ignoble record of populist authoritarians strategizing to maximize power and extend their mandates. Leaders such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), Bolivia’s Evo Morales (2006-2019) and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa (2007-2017) all leveraged their popularity to eliminate checks on their power, change laws to allow for (in most cases, unlimited) presidential reelection and went to extreme lengths to gag the media and civil society. In each case, criticism of the executive was strongly discouraged. Mr. Bukele appears headed down the same path, with little in his way to stop him. Tellingly, El Salvador now features a feeble, fragmented opposition with neither institutional power nor popular support.

Quite likely: No smooth ride for Mr. Bukele

The principal challenge to Mr. Bukele’s regime is most likely to come from the economy, which has now replaced crime and insecurity as Salvadoran voters’ principal worry. Growth is forecast to be sluggish in 2024, and the president’s much-hyped 2021 adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender has so far fallen flat. The International Monetary Fund withdrew a $1.3 billion finance arrangement in 2021 in response to the removal of the Constitutional Court magistrates and the attorney general. Meanwhile, extreme poverty more than doubled between 2019 and 2022.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bukele, no amount of showmanship and fiery speeches can tame inflation, poverty and unemployment. Worsening economic conditions are bound to gradually dilute the president’s public appeal.

As long as he retains his enormous popularity, El Salvador will continue under his system of electoral authoritarianism. However, at some point, President Bukele will see his popular mandate waning from economic crisis, a return of the country’s security woes or, simply, the inevitable cost of any long rule – public exhaustion with the same person in office. When this happens, things will not end well. As with Messrs. Fujimori, Chavez and their ilk, Mr. Bukele will continue manipulating elections, striving to weather the never-ending crises and using all tools at his disposal to remain in power.

Less likely: Bukele loses power in a crisis

It cannot be excluded that, eventually, Mr. Bukele will be forced from power through some combination of popular protest, legislative action or a military ultimatum. He may also eventually lose a reelection bid to an upstart challenger who is able to capture the public imagination – much like himself.

However, this scenario is less likely for at least two reasons. One is that the president is now well entrenched in the electoral system fortress of his own design and can manipulate the results of any election that does not go well for him. And, secondly, no opposition figure has emerged yet who could credibly unseat him.

The important caveat here is that other dug-in chief executives in Latin America and elsewhere were eventually unseated as their popularity evaporated, or they were no longer able to manipulate rules to allow them to hang onto the presidency. In fact, the unexpected victory of Bernardo Arevalo in Guatemala in 2023 in an unfair electoral environment is evidence that surprises do happen, even when the playing field is tilted in favor of the incumbent.

Least likely: Bukele’s voluntary departure

In theory, Mr. Bukele could finish this second term and step aside. It would be a healthy alternative for the country, allowing for the renewal of other political parties and real electoral competition in 2029. However, history suggests that this would be a highly unusual decision for someone who has already accumulated so much power and faces few institutional constraints.

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