Monthly Risk Spotlight: March 2021


Elections in El Salvador Give Historic New Mandate to President Bukele
On February 28 El Salvador legislative and municipal election results revealed that President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas Party won a two-thirds majority of general assembly seats (56 of 84), a significant deviation from the post-Civil War bipolar status quo in which power was shared between the conservative ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) and liberal FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). The ARENA and FMLN combined now only hold a total of 18 seats. With control of the executive branch and a supermajority in the legislature, the Nuevas Ideas Party now has the ability to significantly reshape both the judicial branch and the governmental structure through constitutional amendments.

With a recently reported 90% approval rating, President Bukele has both the ability and the domestic mandate to significantly transform the existing system. The President ran on a platform of anti-corruption and gang violence reduction and has also received support for his government’s managing of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as for economic relief programs that included cash and food handouts. While it is somewhat clear what issues the President plans to apply his new mandate to–likely continuing to pursue his campaign promises and existing ongoing issues–it is a more open question as to how he will approach those problems and how he will react when faced with political resistance or exogenous failure in his efforts.

Historical examples from President Bukele’s previous years in political office indicate a pattern of shunning institutions and stoking political tensions that could escalate in the coming years. When faced with political resistance from a general assembly that refused to sign his security funding bill, in February 2020 President Bukele led armed military forces into the general assembly in what many perceived as an act of intimidation to coerce lawmakers. While Bukele in the short term is unlikely to face significant political resistance, his willingness to shun the political system and align himself with the military and against it when convenient is an important clue in predicting Bukele’s future reactions when the pendulum of popular support eventually swings away from his party. In the short-term, President Bukele’s practice of vilifying those who oppose him using his natural presidential pulpit as well as a significant social media following will most likely intensify. In a recent example, on January 31 two people were killed when a gunman opened fire on FMLN supporters leaving a political rally in San Salvador. This was one of the worst politically motivated attacks since the Civil War (1980-1992) and President Bukele responded on social media following the attack by promoting an unproven conspiracy theory that the FMLN themselves were responsible. In response the FMLN specifically blamed President Bukele’s administration for the attacks (also unproven), harking back to a history of death squads and government support political killings. While the evidence does not indicate either political party was directly involved the attacks, significantly escalating political tensions could increase the likelihood of further politically motivated attacks in a country just three decades removed from full Civil War.


Saudi Arabia: The Implications of Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination
On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist for The Washington Post, was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government and consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Under the pretext of providing him papers for his upcoming wedding, Khashoggi was ambushed, suffocated, and dismembered. Investigators concluded members of the Saudi hit team were closely connected to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s de facto ruler.

The Biden Administration released an unclassified intelligence report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Friday that says MBS directly ordered the murder. MBS has had complete control over the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations since 2017. It is concluded that this makes it unlikely that Saudi officials would carry out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s approval. MBS has long been a supporter of violent measures to silence dissidents abroad. Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations and rejected the report. The Saudi representative to the United Nations said the report “does not rise to anywhere close to proving the accusation beyond reasonable doubt.” The U.S. has imposed sanctions and visa bans on Saudi citizens that were involved in the murder. The Biden Administration has yet to impose sanctions on MBS and is not expected to, as imposing any sanctions or restrictions on MBS directly could injure an important relationship. When pressed on the subject, US Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated, “the U.S. hasn’t typically sanctioned leaders of governments with which we have diplomatic relations.” The Biden Administration is faced with its first major foreign policy test. While campaigning, Biden promised to punish Saudi leaders for the murder of Khashoggi. He has drawn stark criticism for not doing so.

A senior Biden Administration official stated, “We really (came to) the unanimous conclusion that there’s just other, more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward.” The United States and Saudi Arabia have an established economic and security relationship. Saudi Arabia is the United States’ largest foreign military sales customer. This decision seeks to preserve a working relationship with the kingdom. “The aim is recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share,” the official added.


Myanmar’s Fragile Democracy Overthrown Following Military Coup
During the early morning hours on 1 February, leaders of Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, executed a coordinated coup against the country’s democratically elected civilian government. Within hours, leaders of Myanmar’s majority National League for Democracy (NLD) were detained with a military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing effectively taking control of the country. Myanmar’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was charged with crimes deemed by most to be illegitimate and placed under house arrest. The junta declared a nationwide State of Emergency, announcing plans to hold fresh elections in one year. While most in the international community were caught off guard by this coup, there were clear signals indicating the military’s intentions of overthrowing Myanmar’s nascent democracy.

Myanmar’s foray into a democratic political system was brief prior to the 1 February coup. Within approximately a decade since achieving independence from British rule in 1948, Burmese politics were largely controlled by the military with the myriad of ethnic groups in Myanmar having little say over their political future. This changed in 2011 when the then ruling military junta was dissolved with Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of Myanmar’s leading independence figures, eventually assuming leadership of the country not long after. The military would still exert influence over the government, however, with some government positions specifically reserved for military appointees. The relationship between the military and civilian government, however, was consistently strained as both sides sought to broaden their control. The situation came to a head during elections in November 2020 that saw military supported political parties overwhelmingly lose support while the NLD won a landslide victory. Following the November elections, the military claimed widespread voter fraud, calling the NLD majority illegitimate and signaling their intention to overthrow the government.

The weeks following the coup were marked by increased violence, mass nationwide protests, and general strikes which largely paralyzed Myanmar’s economy and society. Internet and telecommunications services continue to be disrupted as the military seeks to hinder the opposition’s ability to communicate and organize. Many foreign leaders have condemned the coup, with most calling for a return to civility and others imposing targeted sanctions against coup leaders and military operated businesses. The military appears, however, to be uncowed by these developments. As coup leaders are unlikely to willingly step down, mass civil unrest within Myanmar is expected to continue.


Violent Protests Challenge Senegal’s Reputation as a Beacon of Stability
Days of nationwide violent demonstrations began the first week of March in Senegal. The violence was spurred by the arrest of a prominent Senegalese opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko in the capital city, Dakar, on 3 March, for disturbing public order and participating in an unauthorized demonstration. On his way to a court trial to address accusations of sexual assault and rape placed on him, Sonko was escorted by a large crowd of supporters. The gathering was peaceful yet was labeled as chaotic and unlawful by the government. A warrant for his arrest was issued prior to him reaching the court. The Senegalese population angered by what it perceived as the latest authoritarian move by the government of President Macky Sall, took their frustrations to the streets. Protestors put up barricades, looted and set fire to shops, burnt tires, etc. Clashes with police officers resulted in at least five casualties and approximately 500 arrests. The government shut down access to social media and messaging applications for several days and banned multiple private tv channels from reporting on the events. Human rights groups have the denounced the excessive use of force against protestors and the violations on freedom of speech and reporting.

Senegal is considered a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa. The country experiences few political scandals and incidents of civil unrest. The events on the week of 3 March are unprecedented and are the most violent the country has experienced in over a decade. President Sall has lost significant support since he first took power in 2012. Shortly after Sall took office, Sonko, a then tax inspector, released documents with signs pointing to corruption within Sall’s government. Sonko was silenced and dismissed from his position.

In 2014 Sonko formed his owned political party, Pastef-Les Patriotes, where he continued to be an avid critic of the government and developed a radical left-wing agenda. In the years which followed, he  emerged as an advocate for the lower class, and his support continues to soar as the Senegalese population grows increasingly tired of a lack of improvement in their quality of life and a widening wage gap between the poor and the wealthy. Sonko is seen as the main challenger of President Sall in the 2024 presidential elections. Perceived as such, he is indeed positioned to be targeted by a government repeatedly accused of attempts to block political opponents. These events make it more probable that the 2024 election could be accompanied by both pre and post-electoral violence.


Georgia: Melia Arrest Fuels Oppositions’ Rage
Georgian police stormed the headquarters of the main opposition party, United National Movement, in Tbilisi and arrested the party’s leader Nika Melia along with 20 supporters. Police used batons, tear gas, and pepper spray against party supporters who attempted to block police entry into the building. More than a dozen individuals were injured during the raid and Melia was dragged from the building, all while broadcasted on live television. Melia is accused of aiding anti-government protests back in 2019. He is being charged with “organizing mass violence” during anti-government protests, which he says are politically motivated. If convicted, he could face nine years in prison.

Political tensions started in October 2020 after the Georgian Dream party claimed victory in the parliamentary election. Opposition groups claim the election was marred by violations, therefore rejecting the outcome. The winning party has been accused of consolidating near-total control over all levels of the government. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the October vote in Georgia was “competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected.” However, it also indicated “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state.”

Shortly after Melia’s arrest, thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in protest. Protestors set up tents outside of the Parliament building and blocked Tbilisi’s main avenue. The protestors waved Georgian and NATO flags and carried signs while calling for a new snap election and the release of political prisoners. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have condemned the arrests and are expressing concerns about “destabilizing and anti-democratic actions.”

The former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned the week before over the court ruling to arrest Melia. He said arresting the opposition leader could lead to “further escalation of the political crisis and threaten the well-being of the people.” The new Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, has said Melia’s arrest was justified. Politicians from major opposition parties have rallied against the government and have vowed to continue a boycott of Parliament until Melia is released.


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