El Salvador president's power play stokes democracy concerns

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - President Nayib Bukele’s use of armed soldiers in El Salvador’s parliament over the weekend has alarmed political foes and rights groups, with growing fears about democratic backsliding in the crime-ravaged Central American nation.

Soldiers leave the National Congress as supporters of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele protest outside the building to push for the approval of funds for a government security plan in San Salvador, El Salvador February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Bukele, 38, on Sunday showed up in the National Assembly with a group of uniformed soldiers wielding automatic weapons for a special session he convened, amid attempts to pressure parliamentarians to pass his crime-fighting plan. He also warned lawmakers that the people have a right to “insurrection.”

The show of force inside the country’s parliament drew condemnation from across the political spectrum and some foreign nations, amid worries El Salvador’s young democracy may be harmed by presidential overreach.

Concerns that Bukele is using troops to intimidate lawmakers comes at a time when leaders of several nations in Latin America, where military rule was common in the 1970s and 80s, are leaning on armed forces to give them a helping hand in domestic politics.

“The Salvadoran military should not be used to resolve disputes between the president and congress. Civilian differences should be resolved by civilian institutions,” said Eliot Engel, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The eyes of the world are on El Salvador and @nayibbukele at this critical moment,” he added, in a post on the committee’s Twitter account.

Both of El Salvador’s traditional parties, the right-wing ARENA and leftist FMLN, founded by former guerrillas, accused Bukele of attempting a type of “coup” against other branches of government.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Oscar Ortiz, secretary general of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, said Bukele’s actions marked “the blackest day” for the country’s democracy.

The youthful president, who identified as a leftist at the start of his political career with the FMLN before changing parties, has sky-high popularity ratings after overturning the moribund two-party system in an election last year.

But he lacks a majority in parliament. Bukele’s right-wing Great National Alliance (GANA) party and allies control only 11 of the 84 seats in the National Assembly. Arena has 37 lawmakers.

The former one-term mayor of the capital, San Salvador, replied to critics of his move on Monday, saying it was evidence of a corrupt system protecting itself.

Bukele wants lawmakers to agree to a $109 million loan to help equip police and soldiers in the fight against crime in a nation racked by gang violence. He gave them a week-long deadline to pass the loan legislation, without specifying what action he would take if they failed to meet his demands.

El Salvador’s murder rate has plunged since Bukele took office in July but remains high.

Warnings about a democratic reversal have deep resonance in El Salvador, where about 75,000 were killed and 8,000 disappeared during a 12-year civil war between the military and FMLN, which became a political party at the end of the war in 1992.

On Sunday, the United Nations called for dialogue, while Costa Rica said it trusted the constitution would be respected in light of the events in parliament.

Bukele has been a strong U.S. ally on issues such as immigration and a critic of “anti-democratic” regional governments, especially in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Marvin Ponce, adviser to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, said Bukele’s poll ratings had gone to his head and he was acting like a “dictator” who was “unhinged” by power.

“It’s a bad example for democracies in Latin America,” Ponce told Reuters.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown