Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Referendum Row Rocks Democracy

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Jun 26 2009 (IPS) - Honduras is caught up in a crisis following the dismissal of the head of the armed forces for refusing to provide logistics and security for a non-binding referendum called by President Manuel Zelaya for Sunday, the legality of which is disputed by the courts and the opposition.

The government has called the referendum to decide whether or not to hold a formal vote on creating a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, during the Nov. 29 national elections.

At a press conference Wednesday night, left-leaning President Zelaya, flanked by leading left-wing social and political supporters, announced the dismissal of the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Romeo Vásquez, and his acceptance of the resignation of Defence Minister Edmundo Orellana.

A military source told IPS that the meeting between Zelaya and the armed forces chiefs had been tense. The chiefs of staff told the president they could not help distribute and guard the ballot boxes for the referendum, because in their view it was unconstitutional, and there was a court order against it.

"So the president sacked Vásquez, and the other members of the high command resigned in solidarity with him, along with the defence minister," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In his official announcement, however, Zelaya did not mention the resignation of commanders Javier Prince of the air force, Juan Rodríguez of the navy and Miguel García of the army.


General Vásquez told IPS "it was difficult for us to tell the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that we could not comply with his order because it ran counter to the constitution, and there was an explicit court order against (the referendum) because it was illegal."

"Unfortunately, President Zelaya pays no attention to legality and reason," he said.

Vásquez refused Friday to step down, after the Supreme Court revoked Thursday the president’s decision to dismiss him.

But Zelaya told a crowd of cheering supporters that he would not reinstate Vásquez.

The Attorney General's Office, which appealed the dismissal in the Supreme Court, said it regarded the president's decision to hold the referendum as "illegal," and therefore his order to the military commanders as well.

Hundreds of troops with tanks surrounded the seat of government and the international airport in Tegucigalpa on Thursday, according to local press reports, ostensibly to prevent disturbances by supporters of the president.

A broad collection of organisations called on their ranks to mobilise Friday in Tegucigalpa, in support of the government and democracy. Demonstrators from other parts of the country were arriving in the capital late Thursday.

On Friday the president and his supporters went to an air force base to recover voting material for the referendum, to take it "to a safe place," where preparations for the Sunday vote would be made.

Also on Friday, Zelaya announced that Congress was plotting a "technical coup" to remove him from power by legal manoeuvres (such as an impeachment vote). The leaders of the five parties represented in parliament are meeting to seek legal and constitutional mechanisms to overcome the political crisis.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Congress passed a law banning any referendum or plebiscite being held within 180 days of presidential elections.

The rebellion of the military high command is added to the serious political conflicts unleashed two months ago, when the government launched its referendum proposal, which opponents regard as an attempt by Zelaya to remain in office.

The president took office in 2006 and his term is due to end in January 2010. Under the present constitution, he cannot stand for reelection.

Andrés Pavón of the non-governmental Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CODEH) told IPS there is a climate of uncertainty in Honduras. "We support the president because we think his (referendum) initiative is consistent with the greater participation that the people want. I think the position the military have taken is a betrayal of the country. They were rightly dismissed," he said.

Lawmaker Marvin Ponce of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party (UD) said his party would hold out "in favour of the president." "The referendum this Sunday will go ahead, regardless of whom is against it. We're going to teach a lesson to the power groups and right-wing conservatives, who want to hijack democracy," he told IPS.

Zelaya was elected president as the candidate of the centrist Liberal Party, but soon after taking office his politics took a turn to the left, creating resistance and anger among Liberal leaders and lawmakers on the one hand, and attracting support from the opposition, civil society organisations and popular movements on the other.

The UD, the international peasant movement Vía Campesina and similar groups, trade unions, indigenous, women's and human rights organisations like CODEH and the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), are now his staunch supporters. So is the Popular Bloc, a coalition of workers' organisations.

The president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, a Liberal but an opponent of Zelaya's, said that the president’s insistence on holding the referendum showed that he wanted to remain in power. But "we will defend the institutions, we will not allow a coup, and if we have to go to jail to defend democracy, many of us are willing to do so," he said.

Orellana, who over a decade ago was the country's attorney general, had warned the president and his cabinet that holding the referendum would be illegal, political sources said.

The same advice was given by a group of legal advisers to the presidency, headed by constitutional expert Efraín Moncada, according to a letter leaked to the press.

For Sunday’s non-binding referendum,ballot boxes will be placed at bus stations, markets, supermarkets, parks, schools and other public places. People will only need to show their identity card and fill in a ballot form answering Yes or No to the question of whether a vote to create a constituent assembly should be held.

The ballots will be counted by government employees, an arrangement that is arousing considerable mistrust among the opposition.

The Attorney General's and Public Prosecutor's offices have already told the president that his initiative is outside constitutional bounds, and have issued an order banning the referendum.

Nevertheless Zelaya was adamant that "with or without an order the referendum will be held, and it will be on Sunday Jun. 28. Everything is ready and we are going ahead because it is what the people are calling for, and we have collected signatures to legitimate it; and rather than legality, this is about legitimacy," he said.

The Honduran constitution and other laws state that convening a referendum is the prerogative of Congress and the Supreme Electoral Court. Both these institutions have declared that the government's purpose in seeking the referendum is to remain in office.

Referendums and plebiscites were incorporated in the last constitutional reform, approved in 2002.

Today the government is supported in parliament only by the five UD lawmakers, after Zelaya broke with the Liberal Party. But even among these left-wing allies there was one vote against the referendum. Doris Gutiérrez is against her party's decision to support the referendum because, she says, "it is illegal."

Gutiérrez told IPS "although we have supported the government in other worthwhile initiatives, this time we are not going to do so because those within the government who are calling for the referendum are under investigation for alleged acts of corruption, and that is against my principles and those of my party."

For the last three years, Zelaya has been at loggerheads with powerful elites linked to economic, industrial, financial, tourism and media vested interests. He has called the media "oligarchs," "kidnappers of freedom of expression," and "spokespersons for capitalism and neoliberalism."

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with 52 percent of its 7.5 million people living under the poverty line, according to official figures, although many observers put it at closer to 70 percent. Since the 1970s it suffered a series of military coups, but democracy finally prevailed and has persisted for 28 years.

 
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