A year of single party rule in El Salvador

May 1 marked the one year anniversary of Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party taking control of the legislative branch of El Salvador’s government with a super majority, earned by sweeping national elections on February 28, 2021. That date also marked the end of decades of multi-party democracy in El Salvador. Until this past year, no party in the Assembly could pass measures without the support of one or more other parties. In practice, this meant that legislation passed slowly, and frequently as the result of political deal-making. But for the past year, Nuevas Ideas can pass legislation on its own, meaning that what Nayib Bukele wants, Nayib Bukele gets.

The very first act of Nuevas Ideas last May 1 was to take control of the judicial branch and the Attorney General’s office. The new Legislative Assembly began by sacking the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Judicial Court, and replaced them with hand-picked loyal judges. Those new judges would soon issue a surprise ruling that Nayib Bukele could run for reelection in 2024, despite clear language in El Salvador’s constitution to the contrary.

Nuevas Ideas had not finished its work on May 1, however.  The Legislative Assembly  then proceeded to remove Attorney General Raul Melara from office and to place a more sympathetic prosecutor in his place. Melara’s office had been investigating corruption by the Bukele administration in the purchase of pandemic-related goods and services and for secret negotiations with imprisoned gang leaders. The new Attorney General, Rodolfo Delgado, promptly disbanded the unit leading those investigations.

The Assembly controlled by Nuevas Ideas continued to undermine judicial independence after May 1. It proceeded to pass a law at the end of August which forced out of office any judge over the age of 60, or with more than 30 years of service. Included in the group of judges removed was Judge Jorge Guzman, the presiding judge over the El Mozote massacre trial.

The result has been that Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party not only controls the presidency and the Legislative Assembly, but faces no legal controls from its hand-picked Attorney General and judiciary.

Using that power, the Legislative Assembly has acted at the beck and call of Bukele.  The vast majority of the legislation adopted by Nuevas Ideas has been from initiatives introduced by the executive branch.

In perhaps the most prominent example, after Nayib Bukele told a conference of Bitcoin enthusiasts that he would make El Salvador the first country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, the Legislative Assembly passed a law to do so, just a few hours after receiving a draft of the law, despite significant public opposition to the idea.

Nuevas Ideas deputies in the congress also passed laws reducing revenue sharing with local governments and replacing them with projects to be performed by a new Directorate of Public Works. (“DOM” for its initials in Spanish).   The Assembly adopted a law making it easier for the government to take private lands in order to develop public works projects.  The result of these public works measures is to weaken the power of local governments and concentrate more authority in Bukele's presidency.

The Assembly also passed laws which reduce oversight and controls on how the Bukele administration spends government money. A law nicknamed the Alabi law, after El Salvador's Health Minister who has been implicated in procurement fraud, provided immunity from lawsuit for persons involved in purchasing pandemic related supplies. The Assembly passed laws to build new prisons, a new airport, and a new national train system and exempted those projects from the public contracting law which requires competitive bidding, transparency and oversight. The DOM is also exempted from government contracting rules for the purchase of goods and services for local infrastructure projects.   

Part of Bukele's appeal to the Salvadoran public is his image as a protector against forces threatening Salvadoran families. His Legislative Assembly willing plays its part in letting Bukele swiftly adopt measures he claims are needed to face such threats.  Faced with the impact of today's global inflation, the Assembly was summoned into extraordinary session by Bukele and passed measures to suspend gasoline taxes, enhance propane gas subsidies, control bus route prices, make inspections for price gouging.

The Legislative Assembly also acted instantly on Bukele’s urging to enact the current emergency State of Exception which suspends constitutional guarantees. Then the Assembly extended the State of Exception for another 30 days, along with yet another law which permits the government to buy goods and services as part of the war on gangs without going through normal government contracting processes. In subsequent days the Assembly would pass laws lengthening prison sentences for gang membership and to build additional prisons. The “debate” over prolonging the State of Exception did not address reports of arbitrary detentions, but instead consisted of grand-standing self-congratulatory speeches describing how the Salvadoran public loved seeing thousands of persons rounded up and thrown in prison.

Nayib Bukele must be happy with how the first year of one party rule has gone for him and his party.   He controls all the branches of government.  His wishes are converted into laws at the speed of a tweet.  His spending of taxpayer dollars has fewer and fewer controls.  Public opinion polls show continued very high approval rates for his actions.    The Salvadoran president now has virtually unchecked power to do what he pleases.  History tends to show that this will not turn out well.