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Political clash erupts in El Salvador as Congress votes out judges

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El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, speaks as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination started at a public health center in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo

Lawmakers aligned with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele voted on Saturday to remove all of the top judges on the country's supreme court, which the opposition and a range of international critics slammed as a dangerous power grab.

But just minutes after the vote, the judges responded with a ruling that the congressional vote was unconstitutional, setting up a clash of the country's top powers.

The vote to oust the judges was quickly criticized by Juan Gonzalez, U.S. President Joe Biden's senior Latin America adviser.

"This is not what you do," he wrote in a post on Twitter in Spanish.

The unprecedented congressional vote came on the first day that lawmakers from Bukele's New Ideas party took firm control of Congress after midterm elections in February gave the party a more than two-thirds supermajority in the unicameral legislature.

The motion to remove the judges passed with 64 votes in favor, or nearly 80% of the 84-seat legislature.

However, after the judicial ruling against the vote was handed down and published on social media to take immediate effect, Bukele's congressional allies then voted by the same lopsided margin to confirm a new president of the court.

They were set to vote on approving four new judges later on Saturday night.

Bukele posted a jubilant reaction on Twitter: "Dismissed!" Earlier in the evening, the vote received a standing ovation from his allies in Congress.

The five judges - the most powerful jurists on the 15-member court - were among the few remaining checks on Bukele's power.

Ahead of the vote, Elisa Rosales, a New Ideas legislative leader, said the move was needed to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic in the Central American country.

She argued there is "clear evidence" that the five judges had impeded the government's health strategy, and that lawmakers must remove them to protect the public.

But Rosales' argument was derided by critics as a pretext to expanding the popular Bukele's already strong political control.

Anabel Belloso, an opposition legislator with the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), described the vote as an anti-democratic intrusion on the judiciary.

"We are against this coup," she wrote in a post on Twitter.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, accused Bukele in his own post on Twitter of "breaking the rule of law and seeking to concentrate all the power in his hands."

He added that Bukele's opponents would work to ensure that what he described as an "assault on democracy" would undermine the president's relations with the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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