SAN SALVADOR, Sept 4 (Reuters) - El Salvador's top court has ruled that the country's president can serve two consecutive terms, opening the door for Nayib Bukele to stand for re-election in 2024 and sparking condemnation from the U.S. government.
The ruling was handed down late on Friday by judges appointed by lawmakers from Bukele's ruling party in May after they had removed the previous justices, a step that drew strong criticism from the United States and other foreign powers.
The U.S. embassy in El Salvador on Saturday slammed the judges' ruling as unconstitutional and a blow to bilateral ties.
The constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to enable a president who had not been in office "in the immediately preceding period to participate in the electoral contest for a second occasion."
The electoral tribunal said in a brief statement on Saturday that it would follow the court's instructions.
In recent years, the relaxing of presidential terms limits in parts of Latin America has stirred concerns among Western officials about a gradual erosion of democracy.
American officials are also concerned about what they see as signs of authoritarianism under Bukele, who last year sent troops into Congress to pressure lawmakers into approving legislation, and who has withdrawn from U.S.-backed anti-corruption accords.
Bukele has pushed back against accusations of authoritarianism, arguing he is cleaning up the country.
His government has readied constitutional changes that aim to extend the presidential term to six years from five, and include the possibility of revoking the president's mandate, among other steps.
That has yet to go to the Central American country's Congress, which Bukele's party and its allies control.
Bukele, a popular but divisive 40-year-old president, has not commented on the court's ruling.
In 2014, the court ruled that presidents would have to wait 10 years after leaving office to be re-elected.
Speaking to reporters at the U.S. embassy on the edge of the capital San Salvador on Saturday evening, U.S. charge d'affaires Jean Manes decried the court's decision, saying that allowing immediate re-election was "clearly contrary to the Salvadoran constitution."
Manes said the decision was a direct result of the replacement of the court's judges with Bukele loyalists, arguing it was part of strategy to "undermine judicial independence" and eliminate counterweights to executive power.
"This decline in democracy damages the bilateral relationship between the United States and El Salvador, and the relationship that we've had for decades and want to maintain," she said.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, also chided the court, saying on Twitter that El Salvador was heading down a path taken by Nicaragua and Honduras in allowing presidents to be re-elected.
"Democracy in El Salvador is on the edge of the abyss," said Vivanco, a critic of Bukele.
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