El Salvador’s Supreme Court Ousts Official, Leaving Elections Tribunal Stacked for Right Wing

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Magistrate Ulises Rivas in front of the Supreme Court. (Photo: El Salvador Noticias)

In a serious blow to El Salvador’s democratic institutions, the Constitutional Chamber of the country’s Supreme Court suspended one of the five magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the independent body responsible for ensuring free and fair elections. The suspension of Magistrate Ulises Rivas represents the latest in a series of actions by the Constitutional Chamber that have supported right wing, oligarchic interests and undermined the TSE’s independence and ultimate authority on electoral matters, a troubling trend as the country prepares for municipal and legislative elections in 2018 and a presidential election in 2019.

The official reason for Magistrate Rivas’ removal is supposed political bias, stemming from statements he made in 2013 expressing support for then-candidate for the leftist FMLN party and current president Salvador Sánchez Cerén. While he admits to having made statements suggesting his preference for Sánchez Cerén, he denies any official affiliation with the FMLN that would bar him from holding his post on the TSE. On a recent trip to Washington DC, Rivas preemptively denounced the Constitutional Chamber’s plan to remove him in a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). While in Washington, he argued to the IACHR that his removal would be a legal overstep that violated his own civil and political rights as a citizen.

Beyond the jurisdictional overreach and dubious legal rationale for the suspension, leaders in the FMLN and Rivas himself have pointed out the Constitutional Chamber’s decision effectively leaves the highest electoral authority in the hands of majority right-wing leaning magistrates. Indeed, the substitute magistrate replacing Rivas is Sonia Clementina Liévano de Lemus, a lawyer who has represented transnational corporations and the national economic elite in disputes with their workers and whose sister served in the cabinet of former President Francisco Flores of the right wing ARENA party.

In an editorial in the DiarioCoLatino, FMLN legislator Norma Guevara recalls the 1977 elections, 40 years ago, when widespread electoral fraud led to massive protests which were violently repressed by the military regime of the time.For many, the fraud and repression demonstrated the total absence of democratic space and prompted more sectors to support armed resistance as the only option for change. One of the most significant achievements of the 1992 Peace Accords that ended El Salvador’s armed conflict was the creation of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal as a pluralist institution to guarantee transparency and that no single sector dominated the process.

At the end of her editorial, Congresswoman Guevara, who was a guerrilla commander during the war, made a call to not forget the lessons of El Salvador’s history: “Those of us who have fought our whole lives for democracy in our country are concerned by the actions of the Chamber that are transforming the electoral system and going against the Constitution itself. It is important to remember the electoral frauds of the past and it is imperative to warn of and fight against this danger. Breaking the Peace Accords, putting electoral democracy at risk is something very serious that we must stop, and say ENOUGH ALREADY!”

This is not the first time that electoral magistrates have found themselves in the crosshairs of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber. In 2014, the Chamber ousted then-magistrate Eugenio Chicas, issuing the decision that set the precedent that magistrates could not be members of political parties. This ruling was especially ironic given that Constitutional Chamber Magistrate Belarmino Jaime was once an advisor to the right-wing ARENA party in the National Legislative Assembly and his family businesses have donated to the party.

The Constitutional Chamber has been widely criticized by Salvadoran social movements for advancing a right-wing political agenda, protecting oligarchic interests, and obstructing the governing FMLN party in any way possible. Some of the features of the Chamber’s overreach include overturning tax reforms and other measures approved by the Legislative Assembly to resolve the country’s fiscal crisis, directing the Legislative Assembly to rewrite large swaths of the electoral code, and reversing the election of 84 substitute legislators.

Given the role that the Supreme Court played in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and the way supposedly legal, institutional processes have been used subvert popular will and oust the democratically-elected governments of Brazil and Paraguay, members of El Salvador’s social movement and the FMLN have stressed the importance of the international community remaining alert and prepared to join them in defending El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

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