Not going to defend the Legislative Assembly
In the current confrontation between the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, and the country's Legislative Assembly, I have shared much of the criticism directed at the president. That criticism involves his unilateral decision to convene the congress and his subsequent entrance into the chambers of the Legislative Assembly accompanied by troops in full tactical gear and sharpshooters on rooftops. But the critiques of these actions, which reveal an authoritarian streak in Bukele, do not mean the Legislative Assembly gets a free pass. In fact, that branch of government has a record of not addressing pressing needs of El Salvador.
There are 84 deputies in the Legislative Assembly who serve three year terms. The two post-war dominant parties, ARENA on the right and the FMLN on the left, hold 37 and 23 seats respectively. Bukele ran for president on the ticket of the right wing GANA party in a marriage of convenience, and that party holds 10 seats. The remaining seats are held by three smaller parties and one independent deputy. (PCN -- 9, PDC -- 3, CD-1, Independent - 1). None of the deputies are from Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party because that party did not exist in 2018 when the Assembly was last elected. Most recently, GANA and CD align with Bukele in the Assembly along with 4 dissident deputies from ARENA.
Bukele is currently applying maximum pressure to the Legislative Assembly because it has failed to provide the necessary approval for a $109 million international loan for equipping the country's security forces. The loan package remains in committee, a process which may have even slowed down now as a push-back against Bukele's pressure. Bukele first announced the need for this loan in the fall of last year.
But there are other important legislative projects which have been stuck in committees of the Assembly not for months, but for years. Consider the proposals for a general water law. El Salvador is in desperate need for a comprehensive water law which would govern the use, allocation and protection of this vital resource. In a country where more than 90% of the surface water is contaminated, where sugar cane plantations deplete well water needed for poor communities, where countless communities served by the national water system report water outages for days and weeks at a time, the need for a national water management framework is acute. Yet for more than 13 years, the Legislative Assembly has failed to act on such a law.
In July 2016, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court overturned the 1993 amnesty law passed after the civil war and directed the Legislative Assembly to draft a new law. First the Assembly did nothing, then it formed an ad hoc commission which contained multiple legislators whose names were linked to war crimes during the civil war, and it continues to fail to have meaningful consultation with the victims of atrocities. The Assembly dominated by ARENA and the FMLN apparently believes it sufficient for the combatants to negotiate the terms on which they can be absolved of their crimes. The Constitutional Chamber granted a second extension of time to pass a new law until February 28, but prospects of legislation passing by then are still murky.
While the deputies seemingly accomplish little themselves, they do manage to use their posts as a job bank for friends, families and political party supporters. Recent news reports show the bloated payrolls of the Legislative Assembly filled with people who often do nothing or often work only on party tasks outside of the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, ARENA, must decide whether to revoke the legislative immunity which one of its principal leaders, Norman Quijano enjoys. Quijano is accused by the country's attorney general of negotiating with the country's gangs for their support in his 2014 presidential election bid. Those accusations, which also include other leaders of ARENA and the FMLN, have been Bukele's focus in attacking the Legislative Assembly in the past three weeks.
So when Nayib Bukele rails against the Legislative Assembly, he finds plenty of material to work with. (Much more material appears in this special section from 2018 in El Faro). But it could also be said that Bukele is partly to blame -- in the run up to the 2018 elections for the Legislative Assembly, he told Salvadorans just to stay home or to spoil their ballots. It should also be noted that he has not used his enormous popularity to advocate for either a General Water Law or a law which provides for justice for victims of war atrocities.
There are plenty of reasons to say that all the deputies in the Legislative Assembly should be thrown out on their ears. But the point remains -- do that in the national elections in February 2021, and not with a call for "popular insurrection" with troops on the march through the halls of government.