Washington, DC—On Thursday, February 6, El Salvador’s President, Nayib Bukele, invoked an obscure clause in the Salvadoran Constitution in order to convene the country’s legislative branch, the National Assembly, on Sunday, February 9. The president hoped to approve a controversial international loan agreement that would provide $109 million to buy security equipment and other support for the president’s anti-crime program. The Assembly had been delaying approval of the loan, motivated in part by political disputes with the president, as well as by legitimate concerns about key aspects of the loan. In a troubling move designed to force a favorable vote in the National Assembly, President Bukele, citing Article 167 of the constitution, which allows the president’s Council of Ministers to call the Assembly into session in case of a national emergency, demanded that the Assembly meet to approve the loan.
The president’s authority to make this demand of the Assembly is questionable, and a legal challenge has already been filed before the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court. Additionally, there are clear questions about whether a dispute over a loan approval rises to the level of a national emergency. Nonetheless, President Bukele’s actions over the weekend directly challenged the independence of the National Assembly and separation of powers in the country. What’s more, Bukele’s decision to involve the military and police in a civilian political dispute has elevated tensions further. Both the military and the leadership of the police force issued statements supporting the president. Reports also surfaced of Assembly deputies who had their security details withdrawn. On Sunday, troops surrounded the government complex that includes the Assembly, as well as the site where FMLN party officials and deputies had gathered to push-back against President Bukele’s aggressive tactics. Lastly, in a clear attempt at coercion, armed military and police entered the Assembly yesterday as President Bukele prepared to address the deputies that had shown up to the session.
The international community, including the United States, must strongly condemn the involvement of the military in a political dispute. They must also urge President Bukele to recognize the independence of the National Assembly, and emphasize the need to use dialogue rather than coercion or threats to address political disagreements. In a country that just recently celebrated the 27th anniversary of a historic Peace Accord that ended a twelve year civil war, finally took the military out of politics, and opened a path for the democratic resolution of political differences, it’s more critical than ever that El Salvador reaffirm those principles, rather than back away from them.