The Stream

Is El Salvador’s democracy under threat?

On Tuesday, September 14 at 19:30 GMT:
El Salvador this month became the first country to declare Bitcoin legal tender, just weeks after President Nayib Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas party passed a law officially adopting the cryptocurrency alongside the US dollar.

But while Bukele says Bitcoin and the state-run Chivo digital wallet app will economically liberate millions of Salvadorans – amid a tepid public response to the rollout – critics of the president and his party say they are swiftly dismantling democratic checks and balances to entrench their power.

Since winning a presidential election in February 2019 on a populist platform against the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Bukele has cultivated an image as the “coolest president in the world”. His direct, highly personal messages to Salvadorans via Twitter and TikTok has established him as a brand as much as a politician.

Yet while he has widespread popular approval, the Nuevas Ideas-dominated legislative assembly has this year made sweeping changes to the judiciary. In May, lawmakers voted to dismiss all justices within the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber and the Attorney General Raul Melara, a measure condemned by opponents. Justices loyal to the ruling party later filled the vacant positions.

Then on August 31, Nuevas Ideas assembly members passed two bills that clear the way for authorities to dismiss judges and prosecutors over the age of 60. Bukele called the laws a “purge of the judicial system”. One-third of judges could face expulsion under the new laws, the independent news outlet El Faro says.

With the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber now broadly supportive of Bukele and the ruling party, on September 3 it ordered the country’s electoral body to allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms. It clears the way for Bukele to run for re-election in 2024, should he choose. Opponents say the order is unconstitutional.

Bukele says his uncompromising stance is necessary to tackle decades of corruption and mismanagement, and improve the lives of Salvadorans. But critics say he is fast becoming an authoritarian who brooks little dissent. They point to the expulsion and detention of critical journalists and commentators as just one indicator of Bukele’s autocratic tendencies.

In this episode of The Stream, we’ll look at what lies ahead for El Salvador’s democracy as the country adapts to major institutional changes made by Bukele and his party.

In this episode of The Stream we are joined by:
Paul Steiner, @PaulDSteiner
President, Conamype

Jose Marinero, @MarineroJose
President, Foundation for Democracy, Transparency and Justice (DTJ)

John Holman, @johnholman100
Al Jazeera correspondent