The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, recently announced what was expected of him for more than a year: that he would run for re-election in 2024. With this announcement, the most popular president on the American continent moves closer to the pantheon of Latin American leaders. who circumvented the constitutions of their countries to rule longer and lays the foundations for joining the long list of caudillos to which the region gave rise since the 19th century.
Bukele knows the weather very well. Last September, the Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber justices he had appointed a few months earlier returned the favor, authorizing him to be re-elected, despite this being expressly prohibited by articles 88, 152, 154 and 248 of the Constitution.
The jurists argued that non-reelection is “binding the will of the people” and “an excessive restriction disguised as legal certainty”. At the time I published a column stating that it was all a move by Bukele to retain power. The magistrates were chosen by Bukele after the president used his majority in the Legislative Assembly to remove members of the Constitutional Chamber and the attorney general in May 2021. Given the evident political subordination of the judiciary to the president, it is to be expected that the Supreme Court will never impose time limits on Bukele.
At the time, the president was careful to withhold his opinion on reelection, which allowed him to identify critics and weigh the challenges to his change. He waited a year to announce his intention to run for 2024-2029. And he did it with studied staging, while celebrating the country’s independence.
“After 201 years, we finally have true independence. For the first time, we have true freedom. Now we have sovereignty and we demonstrate it,” he said from the official residence, on radio and television, in a ceremony attended by the others. heads of state.
In the absence of a crisis, Bukele would be reelected even playing the ukulele. Since becoming president in June 2019, his popularity has never dropped below 75% and is usually above 85%: in July, a Gallup poll showed 86% approval, the same percentage a poll by the newspaper La Prensa Gráfica gave it. it was a month ago.
In addition to doing away with term limits on his term, Bukele leads a government that is democratic only in form. While elections are being held, the president controls the three branches of state and has politicized the military and the police. The democratic facade will hardly fall as long as Bukele remains popular.
The government is currently engaged in a bloody fight against gangs. By the end of the month, the country will have been under the emergency regime for six months, which has allowed more than 50,000 people to be arrested without an arrest warrant and at the arbitrary discretion of the police and military. It is estimated that more than 70 of these prisoners died without facing justice.
Bukele boasts of novelty: he is young, uses Twitter, and has legalized cryptocurrencies as a means of payment. But it is also part of a long Latin American tradition known as continuismo, in which the incumbent president seeks to change, circumvent or reinterpret the constitution to retain power.
According to my data, collected from presidential biographies and constitutions, between 1945 and 2021, 36 presidents from all Latin American countries (except Mexico) and under all political regimes (democracies, semi-democracies and dictatorships) tried to extend their term 48 times. . They were successful 35 times.
Historically, continuity has not fared well in El Salvador. The last to be re-elected was dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was induced to resign by a military uprising in 1944, while Salvador Castañeda was expelled by a military coup in 1948, when he tried to prolong his term.
Although many presidents who extend their terms end badly, fugitives from justice like the Ecuadorian Rafael Correa, in prison like the Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, or forced to resign like the Bolivian Evo Morales, those who manage to govern for several years tend to leave a very strong in their countries.
Many become caudillos. This concept was initially used to describe authoritarian leaders of great political and military power who ruled or opposed governments after independence in the region. But the “strong men” never ceased to exist in Latin America (just look at the current dictators Ortega in Nicaragua and Maduro in Venezuela) always at the expense of sabotaging the progress of their countries.
Often, these caudillos lead to democratic ruptures. This is what happened in Argentina, Honduras, Peru and Venezuela, when they went from semi-democracies to dictatorships under the rule of Juan Domingo Perón, Tiburcio Carías Andino, Alberto Fujimori and Hugo Chávez, respectively. This is precisely the direction that El Salvador is taking under President Bukele. What is the profile of these leaders?
In a study that I will publish soon in the Journal of Politics, I show that presidents with a more dominant personality and little political experience are more likely to try to maintain power beyond what the Constitution says.
In a previous study, I examined the potential causal relationship between the big five personality factors (openness to experience, responsibility, extroversion, kindness, and neuroticism) of presidents and their attempts at continuity.
I’ve found that leaders who tend to be more open to experience, more neurotic, and less responsible are more likely to try to stay in power.
Likewise, presidents are more likely to try to extend their terms when they have strong legislative powers, lead new parties, immediate reelection is prohibited, and higher courts are not fully independent. Almost all of these contextual variables have been present in Bukele’s case, making it easier for him to cling to power.