Perceptions of democracy in El Salvador

In recent weeks, two sets of researchers have released polling data about perceptions of democracy and government in El Salvador and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.  The results of those surveys show that Salvadorans strongly support a democracy that produced Nayib Bukele as their president, but also support encroachments on democratic values if initiated by the president.

AmericasBarometer is a survey of populations in Latin American and the Caribbean carried out by LAPOP Lab, an international survey research center based at Vanderbilt University.  That poll showed that Salvadorans have some of the strongest support for democracy in the region, when asked about that concept in the abstract. 
  • Salvadorans were asked:
"Democracy may have problems, but it is better than any other form of government." To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?
73% of those polled agreed, which was a significant increase from 59% in 2018
  • 66% say they trust elections in El Salvador.

  • El Salvador is one of only two countries in the region where more than half of the population (55%) believe their basic rights are protected by the government.   The average in the region is only 33%.

  • Only 29% of Salvadorans polled would support a military coup to address high levels of corruption.
While expressing strong support for democracy, the majority in El Salvador have clearly tied that support to faith in the recent election of Bukele, and not other aspects of systems of democratic governance.

Salvadorans were asked:
Consider having a strong leader in the government, even if the leader bends the rules to get things done. Would you say that it is very good, good, neither good nor bad, bad, or very bad as a form of government for our country? 
56% said this was good or very good.   Pollsters also inquired
Do you believe that when the country is facing very difficult times it is justifiable for the president of the country to close the Congress/Parliament and govern without Congress/Parliament? 
51% said yes -- the highest percentage in Latin America

LAPOP researchers commented on these results:
Since 2010, each round of the survey has asked respondents if they would justify the closure of the legislature by the president when the country is facing difficult times. Data show that about one half (51%) of Salvadorans would justify such an executive coup—an astonishing increase of 33 percentage points from the previous survey round in 2018. In 2021, El Salvador displays the highest degree of tolerance for an executive coup in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region....

[I]t seems that opposition to Bukele’s attempt to concentrate power in the executive office exists mostly within a vocal minority. In contrast, an increasing section of the population would justify Bukele closing and governing without the legislature.
The other set of polling data came from Latinobarómetro, a Chilean group which has regularly polled on democratic values throughout Latin America for many years.   The Latinobarómetro polling also saw a strong increase in the level of support among Salvadorans for democracy in the abstract.   The pollsters commented:
In 2019, businessman Nayib Bukele was elected president, who dominated in the first electoral round with a different political party from the two traditional parties that had ruled for 30 years. The increase in support for democracy in El Salvador is due to this new administration, despite the political crises that have taken place in this government due to the clash between state powers and the president's abuse of power over the independent powers of the state in the first quarter of 2020. Salvadoran democracy was in check when the president burst into parliament and sat in the chair [of the president of the Assembly]. He presided over it, accompanied by military forces, in order to force the legislative branch to give him the funds he required for his reforms. Bukele has shown that democracy is fine where it works for what he needs. And when it does not do what he needs, his will is imposed by force. El Salvador is a serious candidate to transform itself into a populist autocracy, with high levels of support from the people. Something similar to the initial characteristics of Hugo Chávez.
Latinobarómetro found that Salvadorans support the concept of a populist dismantling democratic institutions, but not the military taking matters into its own hands: 
Such is the case of El Salvador and its president Bukele. Democratically elected in the first round, with a new party, he is a candidate perfect for a populist autocracy, with 63% of Salvadorans in favor of "undemocratic" solutions to problems, but not by a military coup (34% in favor). The difference is substantive, between the rejection of militarism, and the softness in opposition to transgressions of democracy.
Bukele's time in office has been marked by his antagonism towards journalists.  He has popular support for this as shown by the fact that, according to Latinobarómetro, 66% of Salvadorans polled agreed with the proposition "in times of trouble, it's good that the president controls the communication media."   In contrast, the average across Latin America was only 34% support for a president controlling the media.

In many additional ways, El Salvador also stands out from other countries in Latin America as supporters of their current government.  Salvadorans polled expressed:
  • The highest approval rating for the government
  • The highest level of trust in president
  • The highest level of trust in armed forces
  • The second highest level of trust in the police
  • The lowest percent (15%) believing that corruption has increased recently
The results from AmericasBarometer and Latinobarómetro are consistent.  By wide margins, Salvadorans support "democracy" because it brought Nayib Bukele into power, and they approve strongly of his administration.   And when Bukele tells them that measures seen as attacks on democratic governance are necessary, like restrictions on media or weakening of the judicial system, Salvadorans are inclined to believe and support him.