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Democracy Under Assault in El Salvador – Civil Society Reacts

Civil society in El Salvador has taken to the streets en masse to protest against a new law, Decree 743, which would require all 5 judges of the Constitutional Court to vote unanimously in order to rule any new laws as unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Court (Sala de lo Constitucional) of El Salvador's Supreme Court is the judicial body which has the responsibility for ruling on whether laws passed in the country are constitutional or not. The Constitutional Court is made up of five judges, and recently they have been issuing important decisions which work in favour of good governance and transparency.

Four new judges were elected to the Constitutional court in 2009 - Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González and Sidney Blanco who have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. In one example, the Court condemned a law that reallocated funds left over from the general budget to the President’s discretionary account. They also declared unconstitutional the absolute control that the Attorney General’s Office has over what cases are investigated and prosecuted. The decision that caused the greatest controversy in recent weeks was their declaration against the 2005 reforms that allowed the right wing PCN party and centre right PDC party continue participating in elections despite their inability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court. The fifth judge Neston Castenda has generally abstainted from voting.

“In the more than six years I have been writing this blog, this is the first year when I have ever had anything good to say about a court in El Salvador” writes blogger El Luterano

“For so long El Salvador has had a court system from top to bottom known for corruption, a glacial pace, and subservience to the powerful political actors in the country. Now there is a judicial body acting as an independent third branch of government and doing so with integrity.”

The process of dismantling this new branch of government began on 2 June in the El Salvador National Assembly (Parliament) when a legislative initiative led by the PCN party proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Given that such consensus is rare, this initiative would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. In the 26 cases that have gone through the court since 26 July 2009, in 16 cases the five judges had been unanimous and in 10 cases four of the five judges had agreed and signed the decision.

Without any debate, the legislation was passed by the National Assembly that very same day and was later brought to the Presidential palace where it could have been vetod or approved. President Funes signed the Decree into law with immediate effect.

Civil Society was quick to react and protests and rallies against the new law began immediately in the centre of the nation’s capital San Salvador. Citizens came out in their thousands to express their indignation at the President and the National Assembly and denouncing the decree which they see as a clear attack on the institutions of democracy and an attack on the balance of powers among the branches of the Salvadoran government.

Rev Marta Benavides writes “Since Thursday at dawn, in my country we are going through a very difficult and dangerous situations -- the president and the legislature have introduced new law which effectively ties the hands of the commission on Constitutionality of our Supreme court of Justice.. all this is in clear violation of the constitution.. to stop the justice processes that ensure and guarantee democracy, such as derogation free trade agreements, the secret funds of the presidency, the election principles. The new law will allow the president and the legislature do what ever they want when ever they want, on all matters of the life of the people, the rights of nature. We are out in the streets, and repression is going on...there is a lot of chaos, we do not know what will be next, and it is very dangerous.. but we are pressing hard"

According to Benavides the recent actions by the President and the National Assembly can be linked to a number of issues including corruption (the court was going to be investigating presidential spending) as well as a new programme against organised crime and drug trafficking in the region.

"All of this has happened while Government of the Organization of American States (OAS) were meeting in El Salvador to discuss “citizen security” and the police forces of all the countries of the continent, were meeting to create a program against organized crime and narco traffic.. while the military of my country stated publicly that a forced recruitment for military service of about 5000 youth starting next Jan 2012”


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View images of the demonstrations


Read more blog posts on the conflict in El Salvador:

Tim's El Salvador Blog

Voices From El Salvador