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 favor of vindicating good governance, transparency, and the value of an individual citizen's votes. Our friends at Voices of El Salvador describe the recent work of the court:
Since becoming magistrates in 2009, Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. Over the past two years, the four magistrates have passed down some very important decisions, while the fifth magistrate, Nelson Castaneda, has mostly abstained from votes. 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 as unconstitutional the practice of limiting voters to elect only a political party and then allowing the party leadership to select the people who would fill legislative or other representative seats. In a related issue, the Constitutional Court struck down a ban on independent candidates, weakening the power that political parties have over the electoral process. Members of the Constitutional Court 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 PCN and PDC parties to continue participating in elections despite their in ability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court.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. 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.
While these sentences establish clear separation of powers and support transparency, they each considerably affect the powerful grip that the country’s respective political parties have held over Salvadoran governability.
And that independence is what is threatening to the control the old political parties have over El Salvador's government. In what some have called an "institutional coup," the party-controlled National Assembly decided to change the rules governing how the Constitutional Court operates. The Voices from El Salvador blog explains:
As of Friday, June 2nd, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and the Presidency succeeded in sabotaging the Judiciary. A legislative initiative led by the National Coalition Party (PCN) proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Such consensus is rare and would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. Without deliberation, debate or amendments, the legislation passed Thursday afternoon and PCN representative Elizardo González Lovo left the assembly before the session was over to take the reform directly to the presidential palace to be approved or vetoed. To the dismay and shock of many, President Funes signed the reform within hours and it was made effective immediately.I'm not the only one who is disappointed in Mauricio Funes. (We can't be surprised at the right-wing parties acting this way, but before this Funes seemed to actually get the idea of the importance of good governance and institutional integrity.) Salvadoran civil society and the online community immediately began protesting. They turned out for rallies against this new law over the weekend. There is a Facebook page for the protests. Protesters are using the tag #acampadasv on Twitter. Blogger Ixquic described this new legislative decree as a blow to having a country governed by laws, and referred to Funes as a hypocrite for going along with the law.
The FMLN, the National Association of Private Enterprise, and the country's attorney general have now all spoken out against the decree. Despite this outpouring of opposition, Funes is defending his approval of the law:
According to the President, the unanimous vote is a step forward for democracy because it promotes consensus, forcing more debate within the chamber and prevents economic or political interests from creeping in.This situation appears to be headed towards a real constitutional crisis in El Salvador. The judges of the Constitutional Court are reported to be planning to rule that the new law itself is unconstitutional and has no effect.
"Those who are attacking me are against the consensus and that's the paradox. What I'm asking is that there is a greater consensus on the subject matter of analysis of the Constitutional Chamber, something so important and strategic interest for the country, we can not afford that only four out of five reach resolution. It seemed like good reform, which is why I sanctioned it, because I think that five of five gives more assurance that the resolutions will be in accordance with the law, fitting to the Constitution and not in defense of the interests of powerful political-economic groups," he argued.