A political storm has erupted in El Salvador as its Legislative Assembly, newly controlled by President Nayib Bukele's party, dismissed the attorney general and top judges deemed hostile to the populist leader.
Opposition parties denounced the move as a "coup," while Washington and rights groups expressed grave concern even as Bukele celebrated the first step in "cleaning our house."
"And the people of El Salvador, through their representatives, said: DISMISSED!" the young president crowed on Twitter after the majority vote Saturday, which came in the very first session of the newly constituted single-chamber Legislative Assembly.
The New Ideas party, which Bukele founded, gained an outright parliamentary majority in February's elections.
Until then, Bukele, elected in 2019 for a five-year term, had faced difficulty getting programmes approved in a parliament dominated by two opposition parties – the right-wing Arena and the leftist FMLN.
His detractors have long accused him of authoritarian tendencies, and observers had warned that an election landslide for New Ideas could give Bukele undue power.
The 39-year-old, who often sports jeans and a leather jacket in public with a baseball cap worn backwards, has clashed repeatedly with the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor's office.
On Saturday, legislators voted to dismiss all five judges of the Constitutional Chamber, one of four organs of the Supreme Court, for allegedly issuing "arbitrary" judgments.
The Constitutional Chamber had shot down several emergency measures proposed by Bukele to manage the coronavirus epidemic, finding they violated fundamental rights. He reacted furiously.
The new parliament also voted to replace Attorney General Raul Melara over alleged ties to Arena.
US Vice-President Kamala Harris said Washington had "deep concerns" for democracy in El Salvador following the vote to remove the judges.
"An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy – and to a strong economy," she tweeted late Sunday.
Hours earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Bukele by telephone, expressing Washington's "grave concern" and "noting that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance," according to spokesman Ned Price.
He said Blinken also criticised the dismissal of the attorney general, "who is fighting corruption and impunity".
The Organization of American States (OAS) urged respect for the separation of powers.
In a statement, the 35-member bloc said it "rejects the dismissal" of the judges and attorney general, "as well as the actions of the Executive Branch that guided these decisions."
The opposition in parliament called it a "coup."
"As a parliamentary group, we will not be complicit in this coup," said FMLN lawmaker Anabel Belloso.
The UN's special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayan, tweeted: "I condemn the steps that the political power has been taking to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of the magistrates."
NGOs also sounded the alarm.
A group of 25 Salvadoran civil society organizations condemned what they said was a "coup d'état endorsed by President Bukele" with the aim of centralising all power in "only one person."
José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, similarly said Bukele "seeks to concentrate all power in his hands".
Bukele is popular in some quarters for his stated desire to fight organized crime. He has sought to cultivate an image as a man of the people in a country where the traditional parties are widely viewed as corrupt.
He is also seen by some as a defender of the poor.
Allies of Bukele now hold 61 of 84 seats in parliament, making him the first president in nearly three decades to have a majority in the legislature.
But critics have warned about authoritarian risks.
In February last year, in a bid to intimidate MPs into approving a loan to finance an anti-crime plan, the president ordered heavily armed police and soldiers to storm parliament.
That led lawmakers to call for a congressional committee to declare Bukele "mentally incapable" of governing – a move he denounced as an "attempted parliamentary coup."
by Carlos Mario Marquez, AFP