Salvadoran lawyers and human rights groups fear that recently sworn lawmakers have dealt an irreparable blow to the country’s fragile young democracy after the lawmakers removed officials from key offices over the weekend.
The removal of the country’s attorney general and judges of the Constitutional Court removes two of the remaining controls on the power of the administration of President Nayib Bukele, who has been consolidating control of democratic institutions since taking office in June 2019.
Salvadoran human rights defender Celia Medrano said she also indicates that the government wants to “stay in power and crush any opposition.”
In a country still recovering from a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992 and left 75,000 dead, Saturday’s parliamentary vote removed old memories of a time of repression and human rights violations and serves to remembering the fragility of the country’s democratic system.
“Everything indicates that it will be a long period of darkness in the country in terms of democracy,” Medrano told Al Jazeera.
“Set an example”
Bukele won the presidency in 2019 by one anti-corruption platform that appealed to voters fed up with the country’s two traditional parties, the left FMLN and the right ARENA. But without the support of the country’s legislators, many of his proposals were blocked in the first two years of office.
Institutions such as the Constitutional Court, the Attorney General’s Office, and the ombudsman often acted as controls of their power.
In February, the Bukele party, New Ideas, or New ideas, won 56 of 84 seats in the national assembly after an overwhelming show of voter support. When lawmakers took office on May 1, they moved quickly and unconstitutionally, according to legal experts, to remove the five judges of the Constitutional Court and Attorney General Raúl Melara.
The new assembly has already appointed five new judges to the court. Three of the dismissed judges have formally resigned on personal grounds, but not before issuing a declaration of unconstitutionality of his removal.
“With this, the legislature sets an example. They are telling the rest of the officials, “If you question the president’s view, you can also be fired,” said Manuel Escalante, a lawyer at the Institute of Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA).
Bukele and his supporters defended the actions needed to rid the country of corrupt officials from previous administrations. “People did not send us to negotiate. Se’n van. All of them, ”Bukele he tweeted on May 3rd.
Also activated Twitter, Suecy Callejas Estrada, one of the legislators of Nuevas Ideas who led the initiative, defended the decision as constitutional and cited three articles that supported his argument.
However, legal experts have refuted this interpretation of the constitution, which establishes a process for dismissing officials from office, but only under limited conditions that legal experts say have not been complied with.
Officials may be removed from office for “specific causes previously established by law” and a process of verifying new candidates to fill vacancies must be followed. The new legislators avoided it in an ad hoc process, according to Escalante.
“The explanations the assembly gave on Saturday were at no time legal explanations based on the legal system,” he said. “Instead, what they expressed was simply a dissatisfaction with the constitutional court for them [the justices] they did not agree with the president’s constitutional interpretation. “
Escalante added: “His actions convey the message that the only one who correctly interprets the constitution is the president.”
In addition, the timing of the dismissal of the attorney general suggests a political motive, according to Medrano. “It is important to note that the dismissal of the Attorney General took place at a time when he was investigating serious acts of corruption and links of the current government with organized crime,” he told Al Jazeera.
The president’s office did not respond to any requests for comment.
International human rights groups and U.S. officials immediately condemned the actions in El Salvador.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who she is leading the efforts of the Biden administration working with Mexico and Central American countries to curb migration, he said the administration has “deep concerns” about the facts. “An independent judiciary is fundamental to a healthy democracy and a strong economy,” he tweeted on May 2.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed those concerns in a call with Bukele on Sunday, according to the State Department in a statement, while USAID, the country’s development agency, went to say that an independent judiciary is “a necessary precondition to fight corruption and attract investment” in El Salvador.
However, Bukele rejected these criticisms.
“To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, do business, travel and get to know each other and help as much as we can. Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: we are cleaning our house … and that is not your thing, “he tweeted on Saturday.
To our friends in the international community:
We want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know you and help as much as we can.
Our doors are more open than ever.
But with all due respect:
We are cleaning our house.
… and that is not his concern.
– Nayib Bukele 🇸🇻 (@nayibbukele) May 2, 2021
El Salvador’s constitutional crisis comes when the Biden administration has promised to prioritize strong democratic institutions in Central America.
“There’s a pretty clear message from the United States and I think that’s important,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), a nonprofit that promotes human rights in the region. “But now they’ll have to think about actions.”
Sanctioning corrupt government officials and appealing to Bukele’s interests – trade and the economy – are two potential ways the U.S. could continue with its commitment to building democracy, Thale told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Salvadoran lawyers and human rights groups who want to challenge the recent moves now face a dead end. They could have appealed to the Constitutional Court before, but no more.
“Taking control of these institutions,” Escalante said, “forces us to face a situation in which whoever seeks justice or tries to control the abuse of power by the executive branch will not find it.”