Social Movement Decries Abuse of Power by Supreme Court, Calls for Resignation of Magistrates

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Union and campesino leaders rally outside the Supreme Court to denounce attacks on El Salvador's democratic institutions as part of a "soft coup"

El Salvador’s popular movement organizations and leaders of the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party are denouncing a series of recent Supreme Court rulings as political tactics aimed at destabilizing the government, economy, and society that form part of an on-going plan to carry out a “soft coup” against leftist President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

On July 13th, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issued a “packet” of controversial rulings, including a historic decision to declare unconstitutional the infamous 1993 Amnesty Law that had for twenty-three years blocked criminal prosecutions of any war crimes committed during El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war (Read more from CISPES here). This long-awaited decision has received applause El Salvador’s leading human rights organizations as well as long-time international advocates for truth and justice.  Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales and President Sánchez Cerén have each called on the legislature to approve a National Reconciliation Law to seek “truth, moral reparation and compensation for the harm done to the victims of the armed conflict of the 80s.”

However, the Constitutional Chamber simultaneously issued three rulings that represent a serious threat to El Salvador’s democratic institutions and the ability of the governing FMLN party to address the country’s long-standing social and economic challenges.

First, the Magistrates blocked the emission of $900 million in government bonds to fund security and social programs that the Legislative Assembly had approved over a year earlier in April 2015 to address the fiscal deficit created in part by massive tax evasion. The chamber also froze a thirteen-percent energy tax to invest in wind and solar proposed by President Sanchez Cerén and the Minister of Economy Salomón Lopez that would have sustained the energy subsidy provided to over a million low-income households, decisions widely-understood within the Salvadoran social movement as attempts to starve the FMLN government of urgently-needed funds and thus create a fiscal crisis for the state.  

Of perhaps greater concern, however, is that the rulings represent a serious threat to El Salvador’s democratic institutions and the state’s ability to govern. The Constitutional Chamber justified overturning the Legislative Assembly’s majority decision to approve $900 million in bonds on the grounds that two of the votes in favor were cast by substitute deputies. Substitute deputies are elected alongside a “first” deputy and may be called to vote in place of a legislator from their party under various circumstances. The practice is not uncommon; in fact, the vote to elect the four of the very same Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber in 2009 included thirteen substitute deputies.

Perhaps to justify this glaring inconsistency, the Constitutional Chamber issued a fourth ruling declaring that substitute deputies could no longer form part of the legislature on the grounds that they were not directly elected by citizens. However, substitute deputies are mentioned in the Constitution, their functions are laid out in the Legislative Assembly’s by-laws and their election for the 2015-2018 period was approved by Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the country’s highest electoral authority.

In accordance with the ruling, Legislative Assembly President Lorena Peña of the FMLN commenced Wednesday's session without any substitute deputies despite major concerns regarding the court's overreach.

Lawyer and long- time human rights defender María Silvia Guillén decried the court’s actions as an open attack against the legislature and the very democratic institutions of the state. “In regards to the election of substitute deputies, it appears as though [the Magistrates] are at this moment attempting to weaken the institutionality of the state. They are debilitating the Legislative Assembly not only with regard to the substitute deputies, but also because, simply put, they are negating the powers that constitutionally correspond to the Assembly, which has the ability to reform the constitution … and in accordance with the process that is dictated by the Constitution.”

On July 21, a diverse array of student, campesino and labor organizations congregated in front of the Supreme Court to demand the immediate firing or voluntary resignation of the four Supreme Court magistrates. The organizations present included the Popular Resistance Movement October 12th (MPR-12), the “Rafael Aguiñada Carranza” Inter-Guild Coalition (CIRAC), the Popular Concentration for a Country without Hunger and Security (COMPHAS), the Social Security Workers Union (STISS), the Energy Sector Workers Unions (STSEL), the National Agrarian Front (FNA), the Popular Salvadoran Youth Movement (FES) and others.

Movement leaders accused the Supreme Court of working on behalf of the Salvadoran oligarchy and the U.S. government to create conditions to destabilize the government of Salvador Sanchez Cerén. “As organizations that make up El Salvador’s popular and social movement, we reject the rulings made by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice,” rally leaders declared to the press. “We call on the magistrates to stop their political maneuvers disguised as judicial rhetoric, which, in addition to carrying out the commands of the U.S. Embassy, are at the service of powerful oligarchy groups. Their actions have converted the Chamber into a political instrument of destabilization against the government.”

Substitute deputies from the FMLN party also presented an appeal to the Supreme Court based on grounds of unconstitutionality and demanded that their rights as citizens and public officials be respected and that their positions within the legislature be restored. Nelson Quintanilla, an FMLN legislator, questioned the true motives of the Chamber with regards to the recent rulings. “There is a judicial process that the [U.S.] Empire wants to implement with this soft coup," he said. "What are the true intentions of the Chamber with this judicial activism? These are strategies for a soft coup. It is an imperial strategy.”

These types of rulings from the Constitutional Chamber are not new; rather, they contribute to an on-going pattern that began when President Mauricio Funes took office in 2009. As this article in The Nation outlines, before losing the presidency, leaders of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party assured former U.S. Ambassador Charles Glazer of their plan to maintain control over several of the country’s key institutions, including the Supreme Court, which Glazer agreed was a “reassuring” strategy to “fireproof El Salvador from feared FMLN mischief.”

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