A political storm has erupted in El Salvador as its parliament, newly controlled by Salvadorean President Nayib Bukele’s party, dismissed the attorney general and top judges deemed hostile to the populist leader.
Opposition parties denounced the move as a “coup,” while Washington and rights groups expressed grave concern, even as Bukele celebrated the first step in “cleaning our house.”
“And the people of El Salvador, through their representatives, said: DISMISSED!” the young president wrote on Twitter after the majority vote on Saturday, which came in the very first session of the newly constituted single-chamber Legislative Assembly.
The New Ideas party, which Bukele founded, gained an outright parliamentary majority in February’s elections.
Until then, Bukele, elected in 2019 for a five-year term, had faced difficulty getting programs approved in a parliament dominated by two opposition parties — the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
His detractors have long accused him of authoritarian tendencies, and observers had said that an election landslide for New Ideas could give Bukele undue power.
The 39-year-old, who often sports jeans and a leather jacket in public with a baseball cap worn backward, has clashed repeatedly with the Salvadorean Supreme Court and public prosecutor’s office.
On Saturday, legislators voted to dismiss all five judges of the Salvadorean Constitutional Chamber, one of four organs of the Supreme Court, for allegedly issuing “arbitrary” judgements.
The Constitutional Chamber had shot down several emergency measures proposed by Bukele to manage the COVID-19 epidemic, finding they contravened fundamental rights. He reacted furiously.
The new parliament also voted to replace Salvadorean Attorney General Raul Melara over alleged ties to ARENA.
US Vice President Kamala Harris said Washington had “deep concerns” for democracy in El Salvador following the vote to remove the judges.
“An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy — and to a strong economy,” she wrote on Twitter late on Sunday.
Hours earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Bukele by telephone, expressing Washington’s “grave concern” and “noting that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said.
He said Blinken also criticized the dismissal of the attorney general, “who is fighting corruption and impunity.”
The opposition in parliament called it a “coup.”
“As a parliamentary group, we will not be complicit in this coup,” FMLN lawmaker Anabel Belloso said.
“I condemn the steps that the political power has been taking to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of the magistrates,” UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego Garcia-Sayan wrote on Twitter.
A group of 25 Salvadoran civil society organizations condemned what they said was a “coup d’etat endorsed by President Bukele” with the aim of centralizing all power in “only one person.”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, similarly said Bukele “seeks to concentrate all power in his hands.”
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