WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Emerson Flores/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images

23 Mar 2023 | WOLA Statement

Electoral reforms in El Salvador Pave Way for Further Consolidation of Power

Salvadoran general elections are set to take place in February 2024. However, on March 15, 2023, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly approved the repeal of Article 291-A of the electoral code, which prohibits electoral changes or reforms within a year of elections. This is just the latest backstep in the country among a string of human rights violations brought on by the state of emergency that has been in place for just under a year. President Bukele and his party Nuevas Ideas’ continuous efforts to consolidate power within all branches of government have generated widespread concern about the future of El Salvador’s democracy. 

The Legislative Assembly’s decision to repeal Article 291-A opens the door to a myriad of changes in the electoral process, many of which set alarm bells ringing for those who have been observing the elimination of checks and balances in El Salvador, particularly since Bukele announced in September 2022 that he would run for re-election despite the Constitutional ban on consecutive presidential reelection. In 2021, the Supreme Court, which lacks independence, ruled that a consecutive term was allowed. For some analysts, the risks regarding the change to the electoral code include a series of reforms that are likely to be introduced, including: 

  • Bukele has publicly stated his intention to reduce the number of municipalities from 262 to 50. While it is unknown whether this reform will be introduced or not, many assure that this is a strategy to further concentrate power. By reducing the number of legislators and municipalities, Bukele would be able  to limit the power of municipalities in which he doesn’t have as much public approval and merge them with districts where his Nuevas Ideas party has more support, giving the impression that the entirety of the country supports him.  
  • In October 2022, the legislature approved the Law on Voting Abroad to allow Salvadorans to vote outside of the country.  However, one important piece of this legislation is that all votes abroad will count for the Department of San Salvador which has the highest number of undecided legislative seats, regardless of the department of origin of the Salvadoran voters. 

These actions aim to do away with electoral transparency, concentrate power, and ultimately undermine El Salvador’s democracy. Since Bukele purged the judiciary in 2021 and declared a de-facto permanent state of emergency in 2022, the human rights situation and democratic governance have further eroded. 

In a country where international democratic and human rights standards are being rejected right and left, the importance of the international community’s involvement to protect civil and political rights is crucial. Given that changes are being made to the rules of the electoral process less than a year out from the elections, it is  imperative that electoral observation and monitoring begin promptly, especially on the pre-electoral conditions.

The OAS and the European Union must pay close attention to the changes underway and those that will unfold in the lead up to the elections. They should engage with El Salvador’s government, particularly with the Electoral Tribunal, and propose in-country electoral observation missions in order to ensure a comprehensive analysis of the electoral process, including the conditions prior to the election, as well as its aftermath and election day itself.

In the run-up to these elections, the United States and others in the international community  should also offer political and financial support for civil society and independent journalists that oversee the elections, promote the rule of law, and protect civil and political rights for Salvadorans.