Two weeks ago, the Salvadoran Supreme Court handed down a decision that strengthens the right of citizens to directly vote for candidates instead of political parties. Their decision makes it possible for independent candidates to appear on the ballets during legislative elections. The ruling was initially met with harsh resistance from the Legislative Assembly (see previous blog post), including threats to remove the Chief Justice and a last-minute draft of a constitutional amendment to prohibit independent candidatures. In the past week, however, respect, if not support, has grown for the Court’s decision as several political leaders have stepped up to acknowledge that the decision must be recognized even if they do not agree with it.
On Monday, leaders from the GANA party said they would not support further action by the legislature to remove Justices from office or reassign them. Without their votes, other opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly lack the simple majority required to pass a law. “We are not interested in removing or dismissing any government employees,” said party leader Nelson Guardado. At the same time, Guardado affirmed that the party still sought to amend the Constitution to prevent independent candidatures (elfaro.net). The change in position shows that while the party still disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling and hopes to reverse it, they are seeking less confrontational means to do so.
Eugenio Chicas, president of the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), later issued a call for all concerned parties to respect the Court’s decision even if they disagreed with it. “The resolution might seem controversial, but it was handed down by the Court and, as such, it is not up for discussion, because it is an [established] sentence and one has to respect the Court’s decisions,” said Chicas in an interview with La prensa gráfica.
On Tuesday Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, stated that he remains opposed to the Court’s decision. Funes argued that independent candidatures could give organized crime an increasingly powerful role in elections. “Criminal organizations would be perfectly able to sponsor a candidate and support him all the way to the Legislative Assembly, and that person, once in the Legislative Assembly, would not represent the people who voted for him, but instead the criminal organization that financed his campaign,” said the President. Funes did not take a stand one way or the other on whether the Legislative Assembly should take action against the justices of the Supreme Court as a retaliation move, or the proposed amendments to the Constitution. He also acknowledged the need for greater accountability within parties and asserted his support for legislation that would make party fundraising more transparent as a “control mechanism” (elsalvador.com).
Independent candidatures are already allowed in several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, and Peru. They are often seen as a fresh alternative when entrenched political parties fail to respond to voters’ needs. Often, however, they face more obstacles than leading party candidates in order to reach the same levels of success, including the signatures needed to appear on the ballot and the funds required to run a successful campaign. Because of these obstacles, the strength and influence of independent candidates varies widely from country to country. Despite electoral success or lack thereof, independent candidates can often increase transparency and accountability in the democratic election process.
Without the necessary votes in the Legislative Assembly to remove justices, the opposition is running out of options to reverse the decision. What initially seemed like a strong front against the Court’s ruling has lost substantial energy and officials and politicians take increasingly conciliatory positions rather than seeking a fight. This means that the decision will most likely stand, at least for the 2012 municipal and legislative elections. Although the Legislative Assembly is still trying to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the Court’s decision, any such proposal would not take effect until it received two-thirds approval from the 2012-2015 Assembly. That Legislative Assembly, however, could potentially have new members elected as independent candidates in 2012, making passage of the amendment increasingly difficult.