On May 1, the newly elected Salvador legislature began its three-year term. This day is usually a formality with activities such as the swearing-in ceremony of all newly elected deputies. But not this time.
In an unprecedented move, the Legislative Assembly voted to fire all five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Court and immediately elect new magistrates from a pre-determined list without any debate. Then, it voted to remove the country's Attorney General and appoint a new one.
El Salvador's new parliament has 56 deputies that belong to New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas in Spanish), the political party created by President Nayib Bukele in 2018. With a qualified majority of the total 84 seats, Nuevas Ideas has absolute control of the Salvadoran Congress.
Through these two actions, the Legislative Assembly removed all possible checks and balances on Bukele's powers, thus creating a heated debate on the state of El Salvador's democracy, which emerged out of a 12-year internal conflict that ended in 1992.
Since May 1, many individuals, organizations, and governments have condemned the removal of judges and the attorney general, Raúl Melara. Since November 2020, the Attorney General’s Office has conducted over 20 raids on different branches of government. The attorney general had 17 open investigations for irregular purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic by the Bukele administration. Bukele and Melara have clashed on many occasions on social media.
Although the new magistrates have the necessary credentials for their appointed positions, they are not well known by most Salvadorans. Salvadorans could have known more about the new magistrates if the Legislative Assembly had conducted an open process of elections, as is the usual procedure.
The United States Committee on Foreign Relations issued a condemning statement, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Bukele by phone and expressed his concerns. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted the following:
We have deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy, in light of the National Assembly’s vote to remove constitutional court judges. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy – and to a strong economy.
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) May 3, 2021
The European Union also condemned the move, and José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division for Human Rights Watch and a critic of Nayib Bukele, tweeted the following:
On their first day with a majority, Bukele supporters in El Salvador's National Assembly request the ousting of all the magistrates of Constitutional Chamber.
Bukele attacks the rule of law and seeks to concentrate all the power in his hands. pic.twitter.com/5kHrJm5Qwx
— José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) May 2, 2021
Some local organizations and individuals called the move a “technical coup d'etat.” The five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court — the very people that the legislators voted to remove – declared the destitution of judges was unconstitutional shortly after the decision. But they were replaced anyway.
Protesters gathered on May 2 in San Salvador to express their dissatisfaction with the dismissals of the judges and the attorney general.
Estamos en resistencia contra la dictadura. pic.twitter.com/xZiNZqVdh9
— Daniela Genovez (@DanielaGenovez) May 2, 2021
We are resisting the dictatorship.
Even though the protest was in the capital, only about 400 people showed up, according to journalist Roberto Valencia. That is a low number considering that more than 1.5 million people live in the city of San Salvador and surrounding areas. Valencia wrote in the Washington Post that the vast majority of Salvadorans seem willing to forgive Bukele and approve of what he is doing.
Más fotografías de la concentración que inició a las 2:00 p.m. en el redondel del Monumento a la Constitución, en San Salvador. En el momento de mayor concentración habría entre 400 y 500 personas en la plaza. pic.twitter.com/luz274dur4
— Roberto Valencia (@cguanacas) May 2, 2021
More photos of the rally that began at 2:00 p.m. in the traffic circle of the Monument to the Constitution, in San Salvador. At the moment of highest concentration there were between 400 and 500 people in the plaza.
“Everything indicates that, in the next days or weeks, the heads of the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, the Attorney General's Office, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Court of Audits will suffer a similar fate,” he wrote in the op-ed.
Despite longstanding criticism of Bukele's authoritarianism, most Salvadorans support Bukele and the New Ideas political party. Evidence of this support is apparent in Bukele's consistently high approval rating, which has hovered around 90 percent since last year. This support can be explained by the disapproval of past political corruption, a willingness for a strong leader in a context of instability and violence, and the president's focus on strong command of state communication channels and social media.
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Responding to the international criticism, Bukele repeated that the Salvadoran people voted for him and the new deputies to change the country, which has high rates of corruption, poverty, and violence.
Aquí nos costó 30 años botar el régimen que nos tenía en la miseria, en la corrupción, en la inseguridad y en la desesperanza.
Negociaban con la vida del pueblo y ordenaban asesinatos desde las instituciones (hay videos de eso).
El pueblo no nos mandó a negociar. Se van. Todos.
— Nayib Bukele ?? (@nayibbukele) May 3, 2021
It took us 30 years to throw out the regime that had us in misery, corruption, insecurity, and hopelessness.
They negotiated with the life of the people and ordered assassinations from institutions (there are videos of that).
The people did not send us to negotiate. Everyone. Must. Go.
Ernesto Castro, now president of the Legislative Assembly, agreed with Bukele and listed the previous governments’ faults.
?Contra el que ha construido por décadas un país injusto
Desde afuera, cualquiera puede decir lo que quiera. Pero solo el pueblo salvadoreño entiende a qué nos referimos cuando decimos que estamos limpiando la casa.
Repito: Dios nos guía y el pueblo nos bendice con su apoyo.
— Ernesto Castro (@ECastroES) May 4, 2021
?Against those who have built an unfair country for decades
From the outside, anyone can say what they want. But only the Salvadoran people understand what we mean when we say that we are cleaning the house.
I repeat: God is guiding us and the people blesses us with their support.
If what the legislative assembly did on May 1 is a sign of what is to come, there will be more changes in El Salvador, which will not be popular with the opposition and abroad. Javier Simán, a prominent businessman and critic of Bukele and his political party, put it this way in a tweet: “He [President Bukele] did what we expected. We warn you. He wants total control of all state institutions. This excessive ambition is not good for any country.”