Supreme Court Ousts President of Supreme Electoral Tribunal

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TSE president Eugenio Chicas
photo: AFP

In a shocking blow to El Salvador's democratic institutions evidently aimed at undermining the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, the Constitutional Chamber of the country's Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional the election of Eugenio Chicas as President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the nation’s electoral authority, for his affiliation with the leftist FMLN.

The ruling, issued on Friday, September 14, has dubious legal underpinnings and apparent political motives. The Chamber argued that partisan affiliation inherently compromises the qualifications and performance of public functionaries. This argument has no constitutional basis; in fact, El Salvador’s Constitution states that the political parties that received the most votes in the last presidential election propose TSE candidates to the Legislative Assembly for election, and that candidates for the presidency of the TSE are proposed by the party that received the greatest number of votes. To circumvent the evident intent of the Constitution's text, in an astounding leap of logic, the Chamber noted that it does not expressly stipulate that the candidates be members of the nominating parties. In addition to unseating Chicas, the Court went even further, ruling that the Legislative Assembly could no longer elect any person with partisan affiliation to the TSE or any other national court.

The magistrates ruled against the recommendations of the Attorney General and the Legislative Assembly, both of which submitted briefs insisting that partisan affiliation by no means undermines public officials, and that functionaries should rather be evaluated according to their actions and decisions. Legislative Assembly representatives had also denounced the Court for overreaching its jurisdiction. President Sánchez Cerén’s Chief of Staff Roberto Lorenzana blasted the sentence, saying that an individual's political affiliation “is a Constitutional right that cannot be thwarted by four judges; it is a right protected by international treaties that El Salvador has ratified, like the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.”

The decision has a troubling precedent: in October, magistrates ousted their own president for his FMLN affiliation, robbing the Constitutional Chamber of its first and only progressive member in decades. Indeed, despite their claims against partisanship, the magistrates have a record of responding to the interests of the right-wing ARENA party. Over the last few years, ARENA’s historic hold on all public institutions slip as the FMLN has made enormous electoral gains, advancing in the Legislative Assembly, electing magistrates to major national courts and taking the presidency twice consecutively. ARENA and its allies have responded to the loss of political ground by using the Court to “de-politicize” them. FMLN General Secretary Medardo Gonzalez said emphatically: “This is essentially an ideological, political position taken by the magistrates, in that it removes the presence of political parties…in particular of our party, the FMLN.”

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