The Inescapable Appeal of The World’s ‘Coolest Dictator’

REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
El Salvador’s President, who is running for reelection, Nayib Bukele of the Nuevas Ideas party, gestures as he speaks during a news conference on the day of the presidential election, in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 4, 2024.

El Salvador is the site of a startling – and, to many liberals, disturbing – political project. Under President Nayib Bukele, who won reelection in a crushing landslide over the weekend, the country has shifted from what was a functional multiparty democracy to a de facto one-party state. Backed by a parliamentary supermajority, Bukele packed the country’s constitutional court with loyalists. They later issued a ruling that allowed him to circumvent prohibitions against presidents holding office longer than one term.

Bukele is embarking on a second five-year stint in office where his power will be paramount, the country’s legislature a rubber stamp for the agenda of the executive and the opposition a feeble shadow. And Salvadorans are ecstatic. Bukele commands some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the world and won Sunday’s presidential vote by close to a 90 percent margin.

His astonishing popularity hinges on one critical issue: Since winning the presidency in 2019, Bukele has masterminded a sweeping crackdown on gangs and cartels that proliferated for years throughout El Salvador and through networks across the region. His tough approach has lowered the country’s once world-leading homicide rates and brought a degree of safety to Salvadoran neighborhoods. It’s also inspired politicians, especially on the right, across Latin America to try to replicate the Bukele model.

Critics, though, point to its heavy-handed overreach. For two years, the country’s legislature granted Bukele emergency powers to carry out his fight against crime. “Bukele’s government has used emergency powers to jail more than 72,000 suspects – giving El Salvador the world’s highest lockup rate,” explained my colleague Mary Beth Sheridan last year. “They face mass trials of up to 900 defendants. Human rights groups say many were arrested arbitrarily. The government has acknowledged some errors, freeing around 7,000.”

Bukele, 42, has scoffed at his critics, including officials in the Biden administration, which said the 2021 court ruling that paved the way for Bukele’s second term “undermines democracy.” Suave and irreverent, Bukele then jokingly rebranded his bio on Twitter, now known as X, as “the coolest dictator in the world.”

The vast majority of Salvadorans appeared unfussed, drawn instead to the populist promise inherent in Bukele’s pitch to smash a failed status quo that presided over stagnation, corruption and poverty. “It will be the first time in a country that just one party exists in a completely democratic system,” Bukele exulted before cheering crowds on Sunday night, adding that “the entire opposition together was pulverized.”

That’s largely undeniable. “El Salvador’s traditional parties from the left and right that created the vacuum that Bukele first filled in 2019 remain in shambles,” noted the Associated Press. “Alternating in power for some three decades, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) were thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and ineffectiveness.”

The Salvadoran president cast the election as a referendum on his way of doing things in a society traumatized by decades of violence. “Why are there so many eyes on a small (Latin) American country?” Bukele said to his supporters. “They’re afraid of the power of example.”

Bukele’s bio on X no longer mentions anything about being a dictator. Now, he simply identifies as a “philosopher king.”

Bukele’s success in El Salvador reflects a set of politics that transcends his small Central American nation. In both developing and developed countries, democracies are facing historic tests. Polls show mounting public apathy from voters, particularly young people, and growing disenchantment with the ideals of liberal democracy itself.

“There’s this growing rejection of the basic principles of democracy and human rights, and support for authoritarian populism among people who feel that, concepts like democracy and human rights and due process have failed them,” Tyler Mattiace, Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the AP.

For this reason, Bukele has become a cause célèbre among the U.S. right. “The American liberal media cannot comprehend that enforcing hard authority might make a society better, and counterintuitively, more free and liberal,” declared the American Conservative, adding that Bukele “provides a time-tested, successful alternative to the liberal model of governance.”

But the path forward for Bukele is far from smooth. His anti-gang measures are wildly popular, but his country’s economic position remains fraught – inflation is a mounting problem, and El Salvador still has high rates of poverty and unemployment. Bukele’s attention-grabbing, quixotic bid to make bitcoin legal tender in El Salvador has done little to address deeper problems.

“Showmanship is no substitute for governance, and the second term will inevitably increase pressure on Bukele to address the state of the economy,” wrote Christine Wade, a political scientist focused on Latin America at Washington College. “With food insecurity on the rise and exports in decline, Bukele will have to have to address the country’s socioeconomic ailments with policies that prove more effective than his stalled Bitcoin initiative.”

“If prices continue to rise and the government is unable to respond, Bukele’s five-year run of strong popularity may end in his second term,” Valeria Vásquez, senior analyst for Central America at Control Risks consultancy, told Americas Quarterly. “However, given the erosion of the political opposition and the country’s checks and balances, it will be difficult for any serious challenge to emerge.”

Indeed, there’s one overwhelming reality in El Salvador: “The Bukele Model is this,” Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist who has studied El Salvador’s gangs, told Sheridan. “Concentrating all the power in one man.”