Political Dispute Draws Attacks from Media and U.S. Congress


In July, the US media launched their first attacks against the FMLN for the 2014 presidential election. In the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others, columnists seized on a complicated internal dispute within the Legislative Assembly concerning the election on Supreme Court magistrates to proclaim that Salvadoran democracy was “under attack.” In May, the four-member Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issued a controversial decision to invalidate the Legislative Assembly’s recent election of five Supreme Court magistrates and a new Supreme Court president, who were set to take their seats on July 1. The court upheld a claim brought by a coalition of lawyers and non-governmental organizations arguing that the legislature had acted unconstitutionally by electing the new magistrates, having already elected a first round of magistrates at the beginning of the 2009-2012 Legislative Assembly session. This is not the first time that one session of the Assembly has held two rounds of elections. When ARENA controlled the Legislative Assembly from 2003-2006, they similarly elected a second round of Supreme Court magistrates just before their term ended. The FMLN denounced this eleventh-hour maneuver, but at that time the Supreme Court refused to take any action. In their recent ruling, the Constitutional Chamber invalidated both the 2006 and 2012 elections, and directed the current Assembly, in which ARENA now holds the most seats, to carry out two rounds of elections, one to replace the Magistrates elected in 2006 and one to replace those just elected in April. All political parties, with the exception of ARENA and the lone delegate from Cambio Democrático, opposed the ruling and appealed to the Central American Court of Justice to overturn the Chamber’s order. Many pointed out that the Court was ordering the legislature to do precisely what they deemed unconstitutional: elect two rounds of justices. FMLN legislator Roberto Lorenzana described the decision as “magical surrealism.” But more troubling to legislators was the power this decision would grant to ARENA in the selection of what amounts to two-thirds of the Supreme Court.  After GANA split from ARENA during the 2009-2012 Legislative Assembly ARENA did not have enough seats to be a major force in the election of judicial magistrates, but in the 2012 Legislative Assembly elections ARENA won back many of the seats and will have much more power in the election of deputies. As Norma Guevara, chair of the electoral commission for the FMLN, explained, “The result is slanted toward the interests of ARENA and the financial oligarchy of this country” and described the actions of the four-member Chamber as “right-wing judicial activism.” The FMLN, more so than other parties, has come under fire for resisting the Chamber’s ruling. In the US, editors, columnists, conservative policy analysts and, most recently, a handful of Senators have painted this a “power grab for the FMLN party bosses.” The editorial board of the Washington Post tried to drum up fear writing, “Leaders of El Salvador’s civil society, business community and Catholic Church... fear that if the FMLN succeeds in subordinating the court it will move to consolidate control over other institutions, including those governing elections. That was the model followed by Chavez, Ortega and the leaders of Ecuador and Bolivia.” Notably, both the WSJ and the Post editorials focused heavily on Salvador Sánchez-Cerén, the current Vice-President and likely presidential candidate for the FMLN in 2014, suggesting that the demonization of the FMLN as “anti-democratic” is likely to continue throughout the upcoming electoral season. Several members of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee then joined the chorus. Senators Dick Lugar (R-IN), Menéndez (D-NJ) and Rubio (R-FL) called for US aid, including the Millennium Challenge Fund and the State Department’s economic development initiative, Partnership for Growth, to be cut “if concrete measures to restore the constitutional and democratic order in El Salvador are not soon implemented.” These threats were soon neutralized. After a series of meetings with members of Congress and the State Department, Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugo Martinez, reported that international aid was not, in fact, in jeopardy. The State Department has maintained a position of non-intervention. At the time of his visit, negotiations were already underway in the Legislative Assembly to arrive at a political solution, one that respects the authority of the Supreme Court – and the Assembly’s obligation to respect their judicial rulings – and that respects the Assembly’s right and obligation to elect the magistrates. The FMLN has identified the conflict over the magistrates as part of the ARENA’s plan to destabilize and defeat El Salvador’s first leftist government. Going public with their discovery of an internal ARENA document in April, Lorenzana told the press that blocking the elections will “generate a serious problem of political instability, of un-governability. This will have a serious impact on the economies of the country and on the credibility of the country. The democratic institutions will not be able to function.” In a 2008 cable from the US Embassy that was released by Wikileaks, ARENA party leaders revealed that controlling the Court was part of their “Plan B” were they to lose the Presidential elections to the FMLN in 2009. Furthermore, there are several pending claims before the Court – including ones challenging the constitutionality of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the dollarization of the economy, as well as the 1989 murder of the Jesuits, that would motivate the Salvadoran oligarchy to maintain control over the courts. Check www.cispes.org for up-to-date news and analysis as this conflict continues, as well as for ways you can take action against any US intervention in the 2014 elections!

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