Right-wing participation in civil society mobilization reveals political motivations behind the “conflict of powers” in El Salvador

El Salvador’s governing leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), denounced the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party for “generating disorder, chaos [and] violence in the streets, including throwing tear gas at the police, beating people up” as tactics to “promote an environment of un-governability” in El Salvador.

Social movement organizations march to oppose right-wing influence over the Supreme Court. Source: CispesPhoto: Social movement organizations march to oppose right-wing influence over the Supreme Court. Source: Cispes

Tear gas canisters whizzed through the air, while thousands clad in white t-shirts marched to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly under a banner proclaiming “We Defend the Constitution.” The tear gas wasn’t launched by police, however. It was thrown by some of the protestors themselves. Their target? Another protest – this one organized by leaders of the union and campesino movements – also marching to the Legislative Assembly on July 13.

El Salvador’s governing leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), denounced the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party for “generating disorder, chaos [and] violence in the streets, including throwing tear gas at the police, beating people up” as tactics to “promote an environment of un-governability” in El Salvador.

The day after the White March, which left fourteen injured, ARENA announced their support for the march, which had been organized by a civil society umbrella organization “Allies for Democracy” (Aliados por la Democracia). Ostensibly, the march was organized to show support for El Salvador’s Supreme Court, which 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. After the election of the new magistrates in April, a coalition of lawyers and non-governmental organizations brought a claim to the four-member Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, arguing that legislature acted unconstitutionally by electing five new magistrates, having already elected five at the beginning of the 2009-2012 session.

At the time of the elections, El Salvador’s governing leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), held the most of seats in the Assembly, but, along with the right-wing party, the Great National Alliance (GANA), was about to lose several seats to ARENA, El Salvador’s primary conservative party, following mid-term elections in March. Holding the elections in April ensured both parties more influence over the election of the Supreme Court magistrates than if they waited until after the new Assembly was seated on May 1st.

This is not the first time that one session of the Legislative Assembly has held two rounds of elections; the Salvadoran constitution only states that five magistrates must be elected every three years. When ARENA controlled the Legislative Assembly from 2003-2006, they similarly elected a second round of Supreme Court magistrates just before their term ended. At the time, the FMLN denounced this eleventh-hour maneuver, but was unable to get the Supreme Court to take any action.

In their recent ruling, the Constitutional Chamber also invalidated the 2006 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.

The ruling was  opposed by the vast majority of deputies in the Legislative Assembly; all political parties – with the exception of ARENA and the lone delegate from the Cambio Democrático party  – voted against the ruling and have 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 two-thirds of the court. 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 April, when it was clear that the elections of the magistrates would be challenged, FMLN communications secretary Roberto Lorenzana addressed the press, predicting that the “resulting crisis will be blamed on the Funes administration and the FMLN.”

In the US, editors, columnists, conservative policy analysts and, most recently, a handful of Senators have taken the bait. Conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, in her opinion piece “El Salvador’s Democracy Under Attack,” describes a “power grab for the FMLN party bosses.” The editorial board of the Washington Post invoked what the Salvadoran newspaper the Diario Colatino has called “the ghost of regional leftism,” 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 Mr. Chavez, Mr. Ortega and the leaders of Ecuador and Bolivia.”

As if on cue, several members of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee echoed the Post’s proclamation that “the United States has a strong interest in defending the constitutional order.” Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) made a statement on July 16th calling for the State Department to review El Salvador’s eligibility to continue to receive Millennium Challenge Corporation development funds. Senators Menéndez (D-NJ) and Rubio (R-Fl) upped the ante in a joint statement calling on the Obama administration to “engage the highest levels of the Salvadoran government to gain a quick resolution to the serious constitutional crisis.  The Administration must be clear … that if concrete measures to restore the constitutional and democratic order in El Salvador are not soon implemented, the United States will have no choice but to consider a variety of bilateral actions that would reflect this lack of a democratic framework,” flagging the suspension of MCC and the State Department’s economic development initiative, Partnership for Growth, and visa denials as possible consequences.

Thus far, the State Department has maintained a position of non-intervention, as has the Secretary General of the Organization of the American States. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, told the press on July 12, “It is a Salvadoran dispute to resolve; it is not ours to opine on how it gets resolved.” Though Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martinez has assured the legislative Assembly that US international aid was not in jeopardy following a meeting with the US Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte, the demonization of the FMLN as “anti-democratic” is likely to continue throughout the upcoming presidential elections in El Salvador. 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, even though the administration has largely stayed out of the debate.

The institutions, organizations and scholars calling for the Legislative Assembly to implement the order are diverse, including many well-respected legal and human rights organizations, including the University of Central America. However, the involvement of several of El Salvador’s most prominent institutions representing the financial interests of the oligarchy – including ARENA, ANEP and the conservative think tanks FUSADES – in this civil society mobilization raises important questions. El Salvador is not the first Latin American country with a newly-elected leftist government where right-wing forces have created, engaged or manipulated civil society movements to marshal international support in their struggle to maintain or regain power.

ARENA has a clear interest in upholding the Constitutional Chamber’s order. In a 2008 cable from the US Embassy that was released by Wikileaks, ARENA party leaders revealed that controlling the Supreme 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 Supreme Court – 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.

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.”

On July 12, the FMLN announced that one of ARENA’s goal in seeking to control the Constitutional Chamber is to challenge the legality of the FMLN as a political party. According to José Luis Merino of the FMLN, “These four gentlemen of the Constitutional Chamber have had papers in their hands to declare the creation of the FMLN unconstitutional.”

In recent weeks, a negotiation table in the Legislative Assembly has proposed various solutions. The FMLN, joined by most of the rest of the Assembly, has agreed to hold elections for both rounds of magistrates, in which the original results would be re-created, a solution that would respect the influence ARENA had in the Assembly in 2006 and the influence that the FMLN and GANA had in 2012. However, while ARENA claims to be “open to negotiation,” the party has continued to insist on new elections to replace all ten magistrates.