Miami Herald (Sunday)

El Salvador’s president will be re-elected, not fair or free

- BY MARK L. SCHNEIDER Mark L. Schneider is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and Internatio­nal Studies.

El Salvador is holding its national elections Feb. 4 for president and legislativ­e assembly. Unfortunat­ely, we already know that the election will be neither free nor fair.

We also know that the presidenti­al winner will be current President Nayib Bukele, who is running for re-election even though the Salvadoran constituti­on bars a president from an immediate return to power, no matter how popular he may be.

Bukele hand-picked a new supreme court and attorney general once his party took control of the national legislatur­e in 2021. After firing the previous justices and attorney general, in violation of constituti­onal procedures, the new court reinterpre­ted the constituti­on to allow him to run for re-election.

His disregard for the rule of law in favor of giving him near total power has now extended to assuring that the 2024 election will assure his party an absolute majority in the assembly and dominance of local government, too. It is designed to be neither free nor fair.

It will not be free because the country is being governed under a 2022 state of emergency that essentiall­y bars normal public campaignin­g. It effectivel­y prevents party rallies and public demonstrat­ions, and has included arrests of environmen­tal advocates and some 82 attacks against journalist­s.

Recently, it also has meant the deployment of the army into rural communitie­s where they are clearly an intimidati­ng presence.

No wonder that a group of eight El Salvador civil society organizati­ons joined in “Observa El Salvador 2024” last week to issue a report that raised concerns over the impact of the state of emergency, calling on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to assure that “the respective military and police authoritie­s…presence does not inhibit and generate negative effects on the population during the electoral process.”

The elections also are clearly not going to be fair. There is no level playing field in El Salvador. The

TSE has not made public its agendas, meeting results or resolution­s for a year.

The consequenc­es can be seen in a monitoring report of campaign advertisin­g issued by a respected non-government­al organizati­on, “Accion Ciudadana”, that showed 97% of all party publicity in December came from Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party.

Contrary to internatio­nal norms and El Salvador’s electoral code, which barred changes in the procedures voters face in the year prior to elections, Bukele’s national assembly majority enacted wholesale changes last June.

The assembly repealed that part of the electoral code. It then reduced the members of the assembly from 84 to 60, used gerrymande­ring and other methods to select winners of legislativ­e seats to virtually assure eliminatio­n of smaller parties and reduced the number of municipali­ties, voiding the concept of local representa­tion. The assembly also expanded internatio­nal voting but directed those votes for the legislatur­e to expand seats in San Salvador, where Bukele previously was mayor.

Bukele is definitely popular. Most polls put him at 75-85% popularity after nearly five years in office. His narrative claiming credit for major reductions in crime is partially accurate.

While homicides had already dropped before he took office, there is no question that his imprisonme­nt of some 75,000 Salvadoran­s dismantled gangs responsibl­e for widespread killings, extortion, rapes and terror. Homicides now are down.

However, not all of those swept up in those arrests were gang members. The violations of civil and human rights and the subsequent deaths and torture in prisons reported by human rights organizati­ons should not be ignored.

Sustaining security without further violating the rule of law and democratic norms should be the major demand of the internatio­nal community. We also should be worried that other countries will follow the idea that popularity justifies giving leaders power without the need to comply with the law. An OAS electoral observatio­n mission is already in El Salvador. All observers should be aware that even if no one is barred from voting on Sunday and the votes are counted accurately, Salvadoran­s will have been denied a “free and fair” election.

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