A deeper descent into authoritarianism, or the extension of a presidency that most citizens believe has improved the country. These were the two main reactions in El Salvador when President Nayib Bukele said last week that he plans to seek re-election in 2024.
For human rights defenders, Bukele’s announcement runs the risk of sliding back into a dark period in the country’s history when 75,000 people were killed in a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.
The peace deal to end the violence set clear democratic standards to help the country avoid another bloody confrontation, such as limiting the military’s political power and demanding reforms to the justice system.
But Bukele has slowly eroded those rules since coming to power in 2019, rights activist Celia Medrano told Al Jazeera, and the violation of the principle that re-election is not the latest example.
“El Salvador as a country will have to hit rock bottom, as it happened to us 30 or 40 years ago [during the civil war]so people start to understand and react to what’s going on,” Medrano said.
For many, the president’s plan to seek re-election came as no surprise. The Congress is controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party. Lawmakers removed the attorney general and Constitutional Court judges and replaced them with loyalists. And the constitutional court ruled last year that Bukele could stand for re-election – although legal experts dispute this.
The Salvadoran constitution prohibits consecutive re-elections, although it allows former presidents to stand for re-election after two presidential terms.
“The Constitutional Court cannot make decisions that openly violate the constitution,” said Leonor Arteaga, a Salvadoran lawyer and director of the Impunity and Serious Human Rights Violations Program at the Due Process of Law Foundation.
Yet with Bukele’s popularity ratings skyrocketing – he ended his third year in office in May with a 87 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Salvadoran media La Prensa Grafica – most citizens are content to let him bend the rules.
“If he submits to the [electoral] process, like all other candidates, it will be the people with their votes who decide,” Bukele voter Amadeo Lopez, 58, told Al Jazeera.
Bukele’s government has also defended its decision to seek re-election.
Vice President Felix Ulloa said it would not be unconstitutional. “One of the things that has been on my mind all my life has been upholding the rule of the democratic, constitutional state,” Ulloa said, as reported by the Associated Press news agency.
Human rights groups disagree, but there are few options available to challenge Bukele’s plan.
The Salvadoran constitution allows for the right to “insurrection” if re-elected, but Medrano said that would be unlikely in the current political climate.
“Breaking the rules of the game [could unleash] a new wave of violence that brings us back to the confrontational scenarios that the country has known before,” she said.
Experts say Bukele is following a playbook used by other authoritarian leaders in Latin America who were elected through democratic means but then eroded state institutions and changed the rules to allow themselves to stay in power .
In 2009, Venezuelans voted in a referendum to abolish term limits for elected officials, paving the way for Hugo Chavez to stay in power until his death.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega pushed for an amendment to the constitution, approved in 2014, to allow presidents to be re-elected indefinitely; he is now in his fourth consecutive term.
And former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is now awaiting trial for drug trafficking in the United States, won a second term in a hotly contested election in 2017 after a controversial decision two years earlier opened. the way to his candidacy – despite a ban on re-election in the Honduran constitution.
“History has shown us that when a president wants to stay in power using non-legal means, like changing the constitution and changing the rule of law, it only means more human rights abuses, more focus of power over one person, and that the population is going to be left without rights,” Arteaga said. “That shouldn’t be taken as normal.”
The president’s office did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request to comment on criticism of his bid to seek re-election.
As Bukele continues to enjoy popular support in El Salvador, Medrano said cracks in his administration are beginning to show.
A law that made Bitcoin legal tender, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, has been widely unpopular among Salvadorans, while rising inflation and an economic downturn have affected the daily lives of many citizens.
In a recent survey (PDF) by the Institute of Public Opinion of the Central American University of San Salvador (IUDOP), 30% of respondents said that the economic situation had worsened during Bukele’s third year in office, against around 13% the previous year.
El Salvador also suffered one of its deadliest days in nearly two decades at the end of March, prompting Bukele’s party to issue a state of emergency that suspended some civil liberties and led to mass arrests and charges of human rights violations.
The measure remains in place more than five months later. And while 90% of Salvadorans said the state of exception helped improve security, according to the IUDOP poll, it also sparked protests.
On September 15, the day Bukele announced he would run again, opposition groups, including veterans, labor unions and family members of those arrested during the state of emergency, marched through the capital to protest against the government.
Against this backdrop, Arteaga said Bukele’s campaign announcement was “to silence those voices and reinforce that he is here to stay and will be here for many years to come.”
Although she acknowledged the president’s strong tenure, Arteaga predicted “dark years” ahead for the country. “The control of institutions and the attack on all critical voices will intensify.”