El Salvador heads for constitutional crisis over lockdown

El Salvador was heading for a constitutional crisis on Sunday after the country’s attorney-general promised a Supreme Court challenge to President Nayib Bukele’s extension of a state of emergency decree.

Mr Bukele, who has announced one of the region’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, announced late on Saturday that he was using his powers to extend a March 14 decree to deal with Covid-19, of which there have been 1,338 cases and 27 deaths in El Salvador. The decree had been due to expire at midnight.

But the attorney-general’s office said the move was unconstitutional. “A suspension of rights can only be carried out by a formal law issued by the Legislative Assembly, therefore the decree [the president] announced may exceed his competence,” it said in a statement. “Issuing the State of Emergency for 30 days is a usurpation of faculties,” it added, saying it would challenge the move in the Supreme Court.

The president, whose authoritarianism has come under fire in recent months after he marched the military into the legislature in February and repeatedly disobeyed the Supreme Court, hit back on social media, saying legislators had refused to meet in time to study an extension.

“They’ll say this is a blow to democracy and I don’t know what else,” he wrote on Twitter.

“All presidents in the democratic history of our country have had the faculty to declare a state of emergency and have exercised it, without legislative approval. Will a president, for the first time, be prevented from exercising this vital faculty of the civil protection system?” he added.

He said a 2005 law gave him the power to act as he had done “when there is an emergency . . . and when the Legislative Assembly is not meeting”.

Legislators had scheduled a meeting for Monday afternoon but by then, the decree would have expired and Salvadorans would have lost emergency benefits, including the ability to defer utility, credit card and mortgage payments, he wrote on Facebook. “All this would have been lost at midnight last night because legislators did not want to meet,” he added.

Public workers would also have had to return to work. “And what would happen with the emergency today, Sunday, and tomorrow, Monday?” he wrote. “Is the virus going to wait for them [legislators]?”

Human rights defenders say Mr Bukele, who recently enforced a draconian prison clampdown on members of the country’s brutal gangs after a spike in violence, has been using the coronavirus crisis to erode democratic checks and balances. “I think we are advancing towards a dictatorial regime,” Jeannette Aguilar, a UN security investigator said.

José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas at advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said Mr Bukele was displaying “total disregard for institutional constraints”.

“He’s looking for ways to use the coronavirus to grab as much power as he can,” he said.

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