This is an opinion editorial by Jaime García, a Salvadoran-Canadian Bitcoin and co-host of Global Bitcoin Fest.
Many Bitcoiners regard El Salvador as a beacon of hope, as it’s the only country to date that has truly made bitcoin one of its official currencies. The country has provided a hospitable atmosphere for international Bitcoiners to meet, vacation and invest their stacks. Without a doubt, one of the key driving forces behind Bitcoin adoption in El Salvador has been President Nayib Bukele.
But ensuring the success of this novel project will take several more years. And many have wondered what would happen to the project if Bukele, its biggest champion, were no longer in charge. Some have wondered whether one presidential term is enough to complete the task of orange-pilling El Salvador.
That is why the potential of Bukele's re-election would likely be welcomed by many Bitcoiners. However, equally as important is the potential that Bukele would be circumventing the Salvadoran constitution to achieve another term and perpetuate himself in the presidency — an abuse of power that would seem to contradict Bitcoin’s emphasis on rules, not rulers.
It now appears that Bukele will attempt to continue his presidency, beyond his current term. On September 15, 2022, El Salvador’s 201st Independence Day, Bukele announced that he would seek to run as a candidate for the presidency in the 2024 elections. Many Salvadorans received his announcement with excitement, enthusiasm and thunderous applause. In contrast, many of his detractors, critics and international news organizations immediately condemned his decision to run for a second term as illegal and unconstitutional. For the most part, their denunciations were based on the perception that El Salvador’s constitution limits presidential administrations to a single five-year term.
This article describes Bukele’s legal path to a second presidential term. It is not intended to promote nor detract from Bukele’s future presidential aspirations but to simply highlight the requirements for a Bukele candidacy within the current Salvadoran constitution. Understanding the nuanced aspects of the Salvadoran constitution, the events that led to Bukele’s announcement and the mood of the Salvadoran population are critical factors to assist the reader in thoroughly evaluating the situation.
The Legal Questions Around Bukele’s Second Term
Like many in El Salvador, Bukele himself had long held that presidential terms were limited to one and that re-election was impossible. Furthermore, in many interviews, he had gone on record asserting that he would not change the constitution to seek re-election.
As you might expect, changing the constitution is a long and arduous process. First, the president alone cannot alter the constitution. Second, proposed changes require at least ten Legislative Assembly Deputies signatories. Third, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador has to approve the proposed change with a simple majority vote of 50% plus one. Finally, after a cool-off period, the next elected legislative assembly would ratify the proposal with a vote requiring three-quarters of the assembly.
It would have been impossible for Bukele, even with his party having a supermajority in the assembly, to pass a constitutional change in time for a second term re-election. Additionally, the constitution’s Article 248, explicitly prohibits changes to the section dealing with presidential terms.
From what is known, Bukele did not intend to seek re-election. So, what made it possible for him to announce that he would seek a second term as president?
A Recent Interpretation Of El Salvador’s Constitution
On February 15, 2021, the Salvadoran digital news outlet Diario El Mundo published an interview with Nancy Marichel Díaz de Martínez, a candidate running for the GANA party in the upcoming legislative assembly elections. In the interview, she was asked by the paper if she would support the re-election of Bukele, and she replied positively.
On March 22, 2021, in an attempt to get Díaz de Martínez disqualified from running in the legislative assembly elections, a well-known Bukele detractor and constitutional lawyer, Salvador Enrique Anaya Barraza, filed a lawsuit against her. The charge alleged that Díaz de Martínez was promoting the re-election of the president. Per the Salvadoran constitution, Article 75, Section 4, such activity is prohibited, and the penalty for doing so is to lose your citizen’s rights, including the ability to run for office.
The Salvadoran supreme court’s constitutional chamber allowed Díaz de Martínez to run in the election, provided that if it found her in breach of the constitution and she was successful in her bid (she was not), they would depose her of her office. At the time, Díaz de Martínez admitted to the charge.
On September 3, 2021, the supreme court’s constitutional chamber rendered a ruling regarding the loss of Díaz de Martínez’s citizenship rights. The report extensively explored the impact of its decision by relying on the body of jurisprudence in the matter. Essentially, it found that Díaz de Martínez did not lose her citizen’s rights because:
1. The evidence provided by Salvador Enrique Anaya Barraza lacked objectivity and credibility;
2. It’s a given that the chamber must exercise common sense in interpreting the constitution and not penalize sovereign individuals for the rigid and literal language of the document. Additionally, citizens can freely express their political desires, even if not permitted within the constitution, without fear of losing their rights. Free expression is already a guaranteed right in the constitution, and other sections, including Article 75 Section 4, cannot supersede it.
3. Further, it clarified that, although the president cannot be re-elected as an incumbent, the president may seek a second term by obtaining a permit from the legislative assembly to step down from the presidency to run as a candidate, as long as he is not president in the six months before the next term begins. This interpretation allows for citizens to promote a second term, because it is constitutionally possible.
4. The chamber provided additional clarity on Article 152, Section 1, where it reveals a path for a legal second term:
A translation of the original 1983 version of the constitution, Article 152 states:
“The following may not be candidates for President of the Republic:
Section 1 - Those who have held the Presidency of the Republic for more than six months, consecutive or not, during the immediately preceding period or within the last six months before the start of the presidential term”
The court highlighted that the immediately preceding period is not the current presidential period; therefore, the current president could choose to seek a candidacy, provided he is not the president at the time of running.
It highlighted the importance of a candidate not being the president within the last six months before the start of the presidential term because of the advantage of incumbency and using the power of the office for campaigning.
5. The ruling also addressed that if the president seeks a second term, they must request a permit to step down from the presidency to become a candidate and run.
6. The chamber interpreted the concept of alternability more than a change in president. However, that may happen due to a current president stepping down to run and the vice president assuming the role. Still, the chamber also defined “alternability” as the ability of the electorate, through freely-held elections, to have the option to choose another candidate if they wish.
7. A vital part of the chamber’s ruling was its direct instruction that pursuing a third presidential term is prohibited.
8. Finally, the chamber provided explicit instructions to the supreme electorate tribunal, which enforces the rules and administration of elections and facilitates the registration of the current president, provided that he desires to run and he meets the requirements.
Does El Salvador’s Constitution Prohibit A Second Presidential Term?
According to Arturo Mendez Azahar, who, as minister of justice and legal advisor to the presidency in 1983 served as one of the authors of the Salvadoran constitution, a second term has been legal and possible since this version was drafted.
In an interview with Bitcoin Magazine, Mendez Azahar said, "When you compare the current version of the Constitution to that of 1950 and 1962, where it specifically prohibited the president to be a candidate, you realize that a second term is an option. In the 1983 version, we took that prohibition out. Perhaps we made mistakes in drafting parts of the constitution, but this change was intentional. Constitutional lawyers of my generation have long understood that there is a way forward to seek a second presidential term.”
When asked why no one has tried to seek a second term, Mendez Azahar explained that all presidents believed they could only run for one period. He explained that imprisoned former president Tony Saca had successfully run when he was ineligible. In the 2014 election, despite Saca’s candidacy being unconstitutional, the supreme electorate tribunal allowed him to run.
Even more striking is that the last Salvadoran president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén had a candidacy that would likely be seen as unconstitutional. As former vice president under Mauricio Funes, Sánchez Cerén could not be a candidate because he had served his full term. Under the constitution, he had to seek a permit and step down six months before the next period began to have been a legal candidate. Despite the unconstitutionality of Sánchez Cerén’s candidacy, no one took notice, or perhaps it was entirely ignored, and he eventually won the election and became president of El Salvador.
Mendez Azahar explained that “the original 1950 constitution, under auspices of the U.S. and the Salvadoran oligarchy, made sure that no one could have a second term because they were concerned about the military holding on to perpetual power, or worse, a civilian president doing a good job. But once we removed that limit in 1983, it was our intention to make it difficult to ask for a second term. Only someone like Bukele has the confidence to ask the people for an exoneration to step down from the presidency to seek a second term. Salvadorans would have laughed at any former president making such a request.”
What Path Will Bukele Take?
The most likely scenario is that Bukele will ask the legislative assembly for a permit to step down from the presidency to run as a candidate, as prescribed by the chamber’s ruling. Even with permission from the legislative assembly, the supreme electorate tribunal cannot assure Bukele that his candidacy will be accepted, as this is the same body that blocked him in 2017. One of its key members, Julio Olivo, has gone on a national television talk show suggesting there should be a coup d’état against Bukele.
So, while there is a path for Bukele, it is neither assured nor without risks.
Ironically, in an attempt to discourage Bukele from seeking a second term, his opposition has facilitated the possibility not only for him to run but almost to guarantee his presidency, given his high approval rating. And while it may seem easy to group Bukele with Latin American caudillos, it’s essential to understand El Salvador's laws and the potential legal path he has to run for the presidency for a second time.
Some may agree, and some will disagree, but knowing all the facts is crucial for Bitcoiners in evaluating the situation in Bitcoin Country.
This is a guest post by Jaime García. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.