On May 1, Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s 39-year-old president, used his congressional supermajority to sack the country’s top court and attorney general. By the following morning, he had replaced them with loyalists. In one fell swoop, Bukele gained near-total control over all three branches of the Salvadoran government.
It was a classic “autogolpe,” or presidential self-coup, in which a democratically elected president dissolves or defangs other branches of government.
What might the future hold for El Salvador? Peru — where Alberto Fujimori staged a successful self-coup in 1992 — offers a cautionary tale.
How Fujimori subverted Peru’s checks and balances
Alberto Fujimori won the Peruvian presidency in 1990 by promising to do away with what voters perceived to be a corrupt and ineffective political establishment.
On April 5, 1992, Fujimori announced that he was dissolving the constitution, shutting down the opposition-controlled Congress and “reorganizing” the judicial branch. In effect, all constitutional checks and balances, or what some political scientists call “institutions of horizontal accountability,” were eliminated overnight.
By 1993, Fujimori and his allies had rewritten the constitution so that he could run for reelection. He was reelected — not entirely fairly — in 1995. His supporters also won control of Congress, allowing Fujimori to pack the Supreme Court and the electoral authorities. He could thus govern alone.
Fujimori succeeded, in part, because a large majority of Peruvians supported him. He inherited hyperinflation and a brutal Maoist insurgency. Fed up with the status quo, most Peruvians saw him as a fresh start. Indeed, Fujimori’s approval rating soared to 80 percent after the coup. His success in ending hyperinflation and defeating the Shining Path guerrillas reinforced this support.
Fujimori also benefited from international acquiescence. Although the United States and Organization of American States (OAS) initially condemned the coup, international pressure soon subsided — in part because U.S. officials valued Fujimori’s economic reforms and cooperation in the war on drugs. Within weeks, the United States and the OAS opted not to deploy their considerable leverage in defense of democracy.
The costs of eliminating accountability
Fujimori claimed that he was making Peru more, not less, democratic: After all, voters had elected and reelected him to stand up to the establishment. These claims to democratic legitimacy disarmed domestic and international critics.
But democracy requires more than elections. In a democracy, electoral competition must be fair. Critics and opponents of the government must be able to organize and disseminate their views, which means civil liberties must be protected. To ensure fair elections and civil rights, the courts and electoral authorities must possess independent authority.
When these checks on executive power are stripped away — even by popular presidents in the name of more “authentic” democracy — democracy is imperiled. Without institutions of horizontal accountability, leaders abuse power. The result, inevitably, is corruption and autocracy.
This is what happened in Peru. Fujimori’s supporters claimed he needed his unchecked power to resolve the country’s economic and security crises. However, there is little evidence that autocracies outperform democracies in fostering economic growth or combating corruption, and the evidence that they do better at fighting crime or inflation is at best mixed.
Without oversight, Fujimori and his intelligence adviser Vladimiro Montesinos constructed a parallel mafia state. Montesinos deployed the state intelligence agency to spy on, bribe and blackmail anyone who might oppose Fujimori, including Supreme Court justices, government officials, legislators, military officers, business leaders, media owners, journalists, and opposition leaders. He transferred at least $164 million from various state agencies into Fujimori’s campaign coffers. Overall, the Fujimori government is reported to have embezzled some $600 million and is listed by Forbes as one of the world’s “all-time most corrupt governments.”
The absence of accountability also brought greater autocracy. In 1996, Fujimori’s rubber-stamp Congress passed an “authentic interpretation” of the new constitution that allowed him to run for an illegal third term. When three members of the Constitutional Tribunal moved to declare the law unconstitutional, Congress sacked them. That cleared the way for Fujimori’s illegal reelection in 2000. By then, Fujimori had lost much of his popular support. But with the intelligence agency harassing opposition candidates and most media outlets on the government payroll, it didn’t matter much: His rivals didn’t have a chance.
To paraphrase one study, this was a master class in “how to subvert democracy.”
Is Bukele following in Fujimori’s footsteps?
The parallels between Fujimori and Bukele are striking. Both are populists, elected by voters to clean up the political establishment. Like Fujimori, Bukele has used this electoral mandate to justify an autogolpe. And both self-coups came amid severe crises: hyperinflation and violent insurgency in Peru, a pandemic and rampant crime in El Salvador.
Further, conditions in El Salvador suggest that Bukele could easily follow in Fujimori’s footsteps during the months and years ahead.
First, like Fujimori, Bukele is popular. Polls place Bukele’s personal approval rating above 90 percent. He was elected in 2019 with over 53 percent of the vote; his party won more than two-thirds of the votes in February’s legislative elections.
Thanks to this popularity, Bukele could use elections and referendums to consolidate power and justify his authoritarian tendencies, as Fujimori did. If he were to call for a constitutional referendum or to run for a second term, for example, Bukele would almost certainly prevail.
Second, Salvadoran conditions seem ripe for a Fujimori-style corruption network. The new congress authorized Bukele to accept international loans totaling at least $730 million and introduced legislation that limits oversight over emergency covid-19 funds. And earlier this year, Bukele announced that he will centralize access to local development funds previously delivered directly to mayors. With institutions of oversight and accountability dramatically weakened, Bukele will have unsupervised control over vast sums of money.
Finally, as in Peru, the international community has been reluctant to use its leverage to protect democracy. International actors have again been quick to express “concern.” But they seem unwilling to act to counter Bukele’s power grab. And just as the Bush administration prioritized the war on drugs over Peru’s democracy, so the Biden administration may value immigration policy over Salvadoran institutions.
But the international community could do a lot to protect democracy in El Salvador. In 2019, the Organization of American States launched the International Commission Against Crime and Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). Even though CICIES currently has limited resources and legal recognition, it has already shown its potential: In November, it helped local authorities crack down on mismanagement of covid-19 funds. If the international community protects and strengthens CICIES, El Salvador’s future is less likely to resemble Peru’s past.
Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez (@manuelmlndzs) is a PhD candidate in political science at Harvard University. Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of “How Democracies Die” (Crown, 2018).