A deeper descent into authoritarianism, or the extension of a presidency that most citizens believe has improved the country. Those were the two main reactions in El Salvador when President Nayib Bukele said last week that he plans to seek re-election in 2024.
For human rights defenders, Bukele’s announcement raises the risk of slipping back towards a dark period in the country’s history when 75,000 people were killed during a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.
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The peace accord to end the violence established clear democratic norms to help the country avoid another bloody confrontation, such as limiting the military’s political power and requiring reforms to the judicial system.
But Bukele has slowly eroded these rules since coming to power in 2019, rights activist Celia Medrano told Al Jazeera, and violating the principle that bars re-election is just the latest example.
“El Salvador as a country will have to hit rock bottom, as happened to us 30 to 40 years ago [during the civil war], so that people begin to understand and react to what is happening,” said Medrano.
For many, the president’s plan to seek re-election did not come as a surprise. Congress is controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party. Legislators have removed the attorney general and constitutional court judges and replaced them with loyalists. And the constitutional court ruled last year that Bukele can run for re-election — although legal experts dispute this.
The Salvadoran constitution bans consecutive re-election, although it allows former presidents to run for office again after two presidential terms have passed.
“The constitutional court can’t issue rulings that openly go against the constitution,” said Leonor Arteaga, a Salvadoran lawyer and director of the Impunity and Grave Human Rights Violations programme at the Due Process of Law Foundation.
Yet with Bukele’s popularity rates soaring — he ended his third year in office this May with an 87 percent approval rating, according to a survey by Salvadoran media outlet La Prensa Grafica — most citizens are content to let him bend the rules.
“If he submits himself to the [electoral] process, like all the other candidates, it will be the people with their votes who decide,” 58-year-old Bukele voter Amadeo Lopez told Al Jazeera.
Bukele’s government also has defended his decision to seek re-election.
Vice President Felix Ulloa has said it would not be unconstitutional. “One of the things that has concerned me my entire life has been to respect the rule of the democratic and constitutional state,” Ulloa said, as reported by The Associated Press news agency.
Human rights groups disagree, but there are few options available to contest Bukele’s plan.
The Salvadoran constitution allows for the right to “insurrection” in the case of re-election, but Medrano said this would be unlikely in the current political climate.
“Breaking the rules of the game [could unleash] a new wave of violence that takes us back to the scenarios of confrontation that the country experienced before,” she said.
Experts say Bukele is following a playbook used by other authoritarian leaders in Latin America who were elected through democratic means but then eroded state institutions and changed the rules to allow themselves to stay in power.
In 2009, Venezuelans voted in a referendum to abolish term limits for elected officials, paving the way for Hugo Chavez to remain in power until his death.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega lobbied for a change to the constitution, approved in 2014, to allow presidents to be re-elected indefinitely; he is now serving his fourth consecutive term in office.
And former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, now awaiting trial on drug charges in the US, secured a second term in a highly contested 2017 election after a controversial ruling two years earlier paved the way for his candidacy — despite a ban on re-election in the Honduran constitution.
“History has shown us that when a president wants to stay in power using non-legal means, such as altering the constitution and the rule of law, that only means more human rights violations, more concentration of power in one person, and that the population is going to be left without rights,” said Arteaga. “That should not be seen as normal.”
The president’s office did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on criticism of his plan to seek re-election.
While Bukele continues to enjoy popular support in El Salvador, Medrano said cracks in his administration are starting to show.
A law that made Bitcoin legal currency, which recently marked its one-year anniversary, has been widely unpopular among Salvadorans, while increasing inflation and an economic downturn have affected the daily lives of many citizens.
In a recent survey (PDF) by the Institute for Public Opinion at San Salvador’s Central American University (IUDOP), 30 percent of respondents said the economic situation worsened during Bukele’s third year in office, compared with about 13 percent the year before.
El Salvador also saw one of its deadliest days in nearly two decades at the end of March, prompting Bukele’s party to issue a state of exception that suspended certain civil liberties and has led to mass arrests and accusations of human rights abuses.
The measure remains in place more than five months later. And while 90 percent of Salvadorans said the state of exception was helping to improve security, according to the IUDOP poll, it has also drawn protests.
On September 15, the day Bukele announced he would seek re-election, opposition groups, including war veterans, worker’s unions and family members of people arrested during the state of exception, marched through the capital to protest the government.
Against that backdrop, Arteaga said Bukele’s campaign announcement aimed “to silence these voices and reinforce that he is here to stay and will be here for many years”.
Although she recognised the president’s strong mandate, Arteaga predicted “dark years” ahead to come for the country. “The control of the institutions and the attack on every voice that is critical is going to intensify.”