El Salvador: Eastern Region’s Weak Democratic Political Culture

By Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza*

Polling place in El Salvador/ Amber/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

El Salvador has made important democratic progress since the peace accord ending its bloody civil war in 1992, but the country still suffers from a profound deficit in citizens’ exercise of their rights and fulfillment of their democratic obligations – creating a serious risk of authoritarian practices and impunity by groups in power.

  • While President Nayib Bukele’s actions have catalyzed debate in the capital about democratic stability, surveys and research in the four departments of El Salvador’s eastern region show that low levels of interest in essential elements of democratic culture – community organizing; oversight of government operations; requests for public information; demands for public accountability; and efforts to root out corruption – are limiting direct and institutional democracy. This is among the key findings of surveys of 1,073 persons of diverse demographic groups by our center, the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia (CIDEMO) at the Universidad de Oriente.

Salvadorans have not lost faith in democracy as a system that, despite imperfections, would best serve their and the nation’s interests. But our surveys, conducted in September 2019, confirm that citizens are deeply frustrated with the country’s failure to achieve it. The country has at times shown the trimmings of democracy, but its political culture remains largely unchanged.

  • Confidence in democracy has been battered by citizens’ belief that the government is unable or unwilling to grapple with their daily challenges. Crime and personal insecurity, at 42.5 percent, are the problems at the top of citizens’ concerns. Poverty and unemployment are also major problems, respectively ranking 13.7 percent and 11.5 percent in the survey.
  • Despite the scourge of crime, the government institutions charged with combating criminal groups enjoy significant popular legitimacy; our polls show the military enjoys 81.2 percent popular confidence and the National Civilian Police, 72.2 percent. But those responsible for building and ensuring democratic practice do not. The Asamblea Legislativa polled at the time as the institution with the lowest level of confidence, and the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, upon which the credibility of elections depends, scored 56 percent.
  • At a little less than 5 percent, corruption ranked significantly lower as people’s greatest immediate concern, but other research indicates that it causes broad citizen apathy toward civic participation. There are widespread perceptions that opportunities to reduce corruption have been repeatedly blocked by those who most benefit from it. These conclusions coincide with those of Transparency International, which in 2019 ranked El Salvador 113 out of 180 countries (with 34 of 100 possible points). Among relatively stable countries, it is among the most corrupt in the world. Slightly more than 90.6 percent of citizens CIDEMO polled support the creation of an international commission against impunity (CICIES), which President Bukele promised during his campaign.

Nearly 30 years after the country started its juridical-institutional transformation, the same hindrances to effective democracy – high levels of poverty, precariousness (vulnerability), and inequality – remain colossal challenges to building a system of social participation, civic education, and inclusion. The country’s relative stability over the past two decades, certainly compared to the war years, disguise the underlying popular sense that the system has failed to serve them. The Oriente of El Salvador is far from the capital, San Salvador, and thus does not benefit from much of the country’s economic activity, and it has lost a great number of migrants seeking a dignified life elsewhere. But other research around the country shows its citizens’ frustration is not unique, as further documented by the World Bank and others that have found that about half of all households countrywide lack the conditions of dignified wellbeing.

  • The fundamental challenge for CIDEMO is to promote dialogue between citizens and emerging leaders to encourage citizen participation and to build capacities in civic education aimed at favoring the goal of expanding the exercise of citizens’ rights and duties. Our wager is that equality and freedom are critical wellsprings of advancing toward optimal levels of democratic governability.

* Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza are, respectively, the director and fulltime researcher at the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia at the Universidad de Oriente in San Miguel, El Salvador. This article is adapted from their recent study, Democracia, gobernabilidad y corrupción: Estudio de la cultura política en la región oriental de El Salvador. CLALS is providing technical assistance to CIDEMO under a USAID subaward that has made this UNIVO initiative possible.

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