Tuesday, September 21, 2021

El Salvador Power Politics

 The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, from a wealthy business family, first emerged in politics as a popular mayor of San Salvador from 2015 to 2018. He is described by observers as a millennial populist who uses social media to communicate with the public, often announcing his decisions via Twitter. Bukele won a landslide victory in February 2019 as an anti-establishment candidate riding the wave of voter frustration and disappointment with the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), in power from 1989 to 2009, and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which governed from 2009 to 2019. His party then swept the legislative elections in May 2021.

The Salvadoran president is apparently following, virtually letter by letter, the manual used by other Latin American populist presidents with an authoritarian bent, whether on the right or the left, who, by means of rulings handed down by judges under their control, have overturned laws and perpetuated themselves in power.

“If the people grant power, and the people demand these changes, it would be no less than a betrayal not to make them,” the president said in his speech before civilian and military leaders.

The president now controls the three branches of government, with no checks against his style of government where everything revolves around him, a millennial who usually wears a backwards baseball cap and is intolerant of criticism.

The removal of the five judges in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber allowed the president to appoint like-minded judges to the constitutional chamber, whose first move was to strike down the legal obstacle to consecutive presidential reelection. That opened the door for the president to run again at the end of his current five-year term, in 2024, which was prohibited by the constitution until just two weeks ago. The constitutional chamber ruled that the country’s president can serve two consecutive terms in office, whereas according to a 2014 ruling by the same court a president could only run for office again after two terms served by other leaders, based on an interpretation of article 152 of the constitution.

But the new constitutional court judges named by the legislature on May 1 reinterpreted this controversial and confusing article of the constitution and ruled on Sept. 3 that presidents can stand for a consecutive term if they step down six months before the election. The legal ruling, which drew fire from the opposition and global rights watchdogs, thus makes it possible for Bukele to seek a second term in 2024.

He also controls the Attorney General’s Office, after the governing party’s legislative majority removed then Attorney General Raúl Melara on May 1, replacing him with the pro-Bukele Rodolfo Delgado.

In addition to the removal of the constitutional court judges and the attorney general, the legislature passed a decree on Aug. 31 that forced some 200 judges to retire. The government claims it is purging corrupt judges, who do exist. However, the process has not been based on investigations but on an across-the-board decision to make retirement mandatory for all judges over the age of 60 or who have worked for 30 years. Some have interpreted the move as a purge within the judicial system in order to later fill the vacuum with judges aligned with Bukelismo.

On Sept. 15, thousands of people marched through the streets of the Salvadoran capital to protest the president’s increasing authoritarianism, in the most massive demonstration against Bukele since he came to power.

“Apparently we are in democracy, but the president’s actions run counter to democracy, he is dismantling the state’s institutionality, and is thus attacking the rights of the entire population,” lawyer Loyda Robles, of the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law (FESPAD), told IPS. She added that there were warning signs that El Salvador could be heading towards an even more authoritarian, dictatorial, Nicaragua-style regime.

Analyst Dagoberto Gutiérrez,  a former guerrilla commander now close to the president told IPS that the struggle between Bukele and his opponents is rooted in a silent struggle between two economic groups: the traditional oligarchy that has pulled the strings of the country’s politics, and new small, medium and even large businesspeople aligned with the president. Gutiérrez said the opposition is demanding independence of powers that has actually never existed in the country, since the oligarchy always put in place officials who would maintain the status quo. That “democracy” touted by the oligarchy, with its fallacies and abuses, is being taken up by another political project, that of Bukele, who stressed that the extent of the transformations he has planned “is yet to be seen.”

 Lawyer Tahnya Pastor remarked to IPS that when all the warning signs are analysed, “we can conclude that we are heading towards the ultimate concentration of power, and history has shown that no concentration of power is good.”

But like Gutiérrez, Pastor criticised the opposition because in the past they have also manipulated, for their own political interests, the same institutions over which they are now crying foul.

“The constitution has indeed been reformed in the past depending on the makeup of the constitutional court, and the jurisprudence has responded to partisan political interests,” she said.

Bukele Speeds Up Moves Towards Authoritarianism in El Salvador | Inter Press Service (ipsnews.net)

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