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Legislative Blunders and Expectations in El Salvador

El Salvador has undergone various political events in the past couple of months. Political drama and institutional bickering have been present in daily news. For one, the legislative and municipal elections that took place this past March were fair and clean, while the same cannot be said about other countries in the region—namely Nicaragua. The outcome of El Salvador’s election results was bleak for the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, or FMLN) party; FMLN’s largest loss was in the country’s most populous and important municipalities.

Second, the main opposition party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA), simply recuperated what they had historically obtained in legislative elections before the defection of 12 of their deputies in 2009. ARENA’s main win was in taking the larger, emblematic municipalities from the FMLN which are also founding shareholders of Alba Petroleos, the gasoline-importing Venezuelan joint venture with the FMLN. With these results the citizens of El Salvador confirm the country’s preference for the two larger parties.

Changes in electoral legislation allowing for independent candidates proved useless: the most voted independent candidate only obtained a little over 1,000 votes. El Salvador’s strong political party system has allowed, for the most part, defining medium-term policy agendas and a certain degree of accountability toward voters. This is unlike Guatemala, where political parties come and go—creating a real problem for the democratic process.

Unfortunately, the outgoing legislature made some nefarious decisions prior to their term coming to an end on April 30. The most troubling decision was made regarding the anticipated election of Supreme Court magistrates and specifically some magistrates in the Constitutional Tribunal. In essence, the previous President of the Supreme Court—who also heads the Constitutional Tribunal—was removed from his office by the legislature before his term was over. The reason behind the shuffle presumably responded to some decisions that the previous Tribunal had made regarding electoral reform and political parties. Civil society organizations denounced the decision to no avail.

Other controversial measures ratified by the outgoing legislature included increasing salaries for the incoming legislature and requesting that each ousted deputy be given two years of security guards provided by an already-stretched police force. Civil society organizations and citizens exploded with ire, especially on social media, and eventually succeeded in their campaign to reverse these two decisions.

These series of events conclude that El Salvador must modernize its democratic institutions—so that checks and balances are clearly defined in order to avoid future clashes or even political deadlock between any of the three branches of government. Similarly, civil society and youth organizations have adopted an active role in monitoring legislative issues. The expectations of the recently inaugurated legislature far exceed those of any previous congress. This time around, citizens were able to vote directly for each candidate and not for the political party. This creates a higher degree of proximity with the legislators and thus a heightened sense of hope and expectation.

If legislators and political parties are not able to effectively manage and meet these expectations, the result may be a greater degree of disenchantment with democracy and its ability to deliver. Conversely, if these hopes are met and political parties can reinforce the notion of separation of powers, checks and balances, individual responsibility and limits to state power, then El Salvador may once again show the region how post-conflict democracies are able to evolve.

Julio Rank Wright is contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily lives in Washington DC.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: El Salvador, Rule of Law, Supreme Court, Democratic Governance

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