Monday, February 10, 2020

El Salvador on the constitutional brink (Feb. 10, 2020)

El Salvador is on the brink of a constitutional crisis after a days-long power struggle between President Nayib Bukele and lawmakers culminated in a brief military takeover of the National Assembly chamber, yesterday. He accused lawmakers of dragging their feet on the issue and suggested he might to dissolve congress if they do not comply with his demands. 

In an unprecedented move, Bukele occupied the chair reserved for the National Assembly president and, watched by dozens of soldiers armed with automatic weapons and in full battle uniform, cupped his hands together to pray, he said, for patience with lawmakers, few of whom turned up at the executive-convened special session. Many of those who did come were spooked by the military display, reports El Diario de Hoy. "Now I think it's very clear who is in control of the situation," said Bukele yesterday. The move is unprecedented, reports El Faro. (Full transcript of Bukele's statements at El Faro.)

Bukele launched the what initially appeared to be a symbolic tug-o-war last Thursday, when he called a special weekend session of the National Assembly for lawmakers to urgently approve a $109 million loan to better equip the country’s security forces. Lawmakers countered that the executive branch does not have the power to call for a special session when Congress is functioning normally, a view backed by organizations of civil society, such as think-tank FUSADES.

"Establishing the precedent of Bukele appealing to Article 167 of the Constitution—which permits the convocation of an extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly— is plainly absurd. To allow the passing of a spending bill suffice to be motive for the Executive to use constitutional clauses reserved for exceptional circumstances would be to hand over to the President of the Republic the power to convene the Assembly and dictate to them his agenda whenever he feels like it," wrote El Faro in an editorial this weekend. (El Gato Encerrado explores the constitutionality of the move, which it argues is based on a legal misinterpretation.)

Bukele, on Friday, declared that Salvadorans had a legal right to insurrection in such situations and called for protests. But the stakes escalated quickly when the executive briefly removed lawmakers’ security protection details. Lawmakers who did not go to yesterday's "special session," denounced that security forces were deployed to lawmakers' homes to attempt to force their attendance, reports El Diario de Hoy.

About 5,000 protesters backed Bukele's demands outside of the Congress yesterday and watched his actions inside the chamber via three enormous LED screens set up by the presidency. Many were transported by official government vehicles, reports Revista Factum. There are indications that government employees were officially ordered to attend. Bukele said the "peoples" pressure could continue next week if lawmakers don't comply.

Bukele also framed the issue as part of next year's legislative campaign season, saying that voters would have the opportunity to fill National Assembly seats with "honest people" in the election next February. He called current lawmakers "criminals," reports El Faro.

Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco called the episode in the National Assembly “an exhibition of brute force” and said the Organization of American States should urgently meet to discuss the situation.

“The ostentatious police and military deployment in the Legislative Assembly reminds us of the darkest times in El Salvador’s history and raises international alarm over the future of human rights in the country. President Nayib Bukele must safeguard the crucial legacy of the peace accords,” said Amnesty International's Erika Guevara-Rosas.

Lawmakers said they would meet today, which could potentially deescalate the situation.

But the episode "lay bare Bukele’s method of exercising power: start with coercion, and then move to force," according to El Faro's editorial. "Even if these threats do not become a reality, they are a grave affront to our republican system, to the independence of separate branches of the government, and to peace of society. The alarm bells of anyone defending democracy in El Salvador should be ringing."

As the situation in El Salvador is evolving, I am sending this first part of the briefing immediately and will send the regular briefs covering the rest of the region shortly.



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