In 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis. Crime and inflation are up, foreign investment is down, the government’s finances are in disarray, and the President is talking about polling the Honduran people to see if they want constitutional changes that could jeopardize the 2013 general elections. In 2009, Honduran President Jose Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales proposed polling the Honduran people to see if they wanted to vote on a Constituent Assembly during the November 2009 general elections. The poll to determine if the people wanted the “Fourth Urn", as it was called, was declared illegal by the Honduran Supreme Court, but President Zelaya decided to proceed with it anyway on June 28, 2009.
In the week before the planned poll, intense negotiations between Mr. Zelaya and his chief political rival, President of the Congress Roberto Micheletti Bain, failed to produce a compromise on the Fourth Urn. (Note: During elections, Hondurans deposit their completed ballots in boxes called urns. There are three urns in an election: one for votes for president, one for members of congress and one for municipal officials.)
Concerned that Mr. Zelaya would manipulate the results of the poll to demand that Congress install the Fourth Urn, the Honduran Congress, Armed Forces, Supreme Court and Attorney General conspired to remove Mr. Zelaya from office claiming he had committed crimes against the Constitution that made him ineligible to continue as President. In the hours before dawn on June 29, 2009, the Honduran Army removed Mr. Zelaya from his house and put him on an Air Force plane to Costa Rica. The world awoke to Mr. Zelaya on international news claiming he had been the victim of a coup d’etat. Roberto Micheletti claimed the move was a “constitutional succession,” and he assumed the presidency; no country in the world recognized his de facto government.
With the support of the international community, Honduras held democratic elections in November 2009, and elected Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa as its president.
This year is starting off eerily similar to 2009 with a constitutional crisis involving the Supreme Court. In 2009, the question was what would happen if the National Congress didn’t name fifteen new Supreme Court Justices before the deadline specified in the Constitution. The crisis was avoided when the Congress elected the fifteen magistrates minutes before the midnight deadline. In 2013, the question is what to do with four justices removed from the Supreme Court by a Congressional vote, and the four justices sworn in to replace them. The former judges have asked the Supreme Court to declare their removal unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court denied the request.
Once again, the Honduran President is directly involved in the controversy. In 2009, it was Manuel Zelaya who argued for reelection of some of the magistrates so he could have some measure of influence over the court. Current President Porfirio Lobo encouraged the Congress to remove the justices following several of their decisions that went against his administration. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the declaration by the Constitutional Court that the law allowing the Honduran police to conduct polygraphs and other “confidence tests” on police officers was unconstitutional. Curiously, the decision came after the law’s six month validity had expired; the tests had already been administered and some police officers had been fired.
Of course, this is an election year, and there is a school of thought that the Honduran Congress removed the justices because the government was concerned about how the Supreme Court would rule on a request by National Party presidential candidate and Tegucigalpa Mayor Ricardo Álvarez to recount, vote for vote, the results of the November 2012 primary elections. Mayor Álvarez lost those elections to President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernández, but demonstrated irregularities in the final reports provided by some polling stations that would indicate fraud in favor of Congressman Hernández. International observers did not report widespread fraud but admitted that their observations were not located in the small districts where Mr. Hernández is strongest and where Mr. Álvarez alleged the machinations took place. Mr. Álvarez is President Lobo’s preferred candidate to succeed him in the presidency with general elections to take place in November 2013.
Judicial controversies are not the only problems plaguing Honduras in 2013. The government finished the year with a budget deficit that exceeded US$1 billion (6 percent of GDP) and many public sectors did not receive their December salary or year-end bonus. Honduras has attempted to finance its budget deficit by offering sovereign debt but has been unable to find any buyers. The local financial system has refused to purchase bonds, and it is unlikely Honduras will find international banks willing to assume the risk despite the large interest rates being offered.
Crime increased significantly in the second half of 2012; even Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla admitted that Honduras experienced a spike in homicides in the 45 days ending the year with the police unable to stem the tide. The early advances in effectiveness and reduced corruption gained after the arrival of National Police Chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla (no relation to the Minister) in the second quarter of 2012 have leveled off, and the police seemed to have returned to their status quo of mediocrity.
President Lobo broached the topic of the Fourth Urn during the first Ministers Council meeting of 2013 in which he said there would definitely be a consultation of the people during the November elections. The 2009 Fourth Urn would have been a plebiscite to ask the people if they wanted to install a Constituent Assembly to reform the Honduran constitution. The Fourth Urn in 2013 will likely ask the Constituent Assembly question as well as other national interest questions such as should the government renegotiate the contracts with the large private energy generating companies with the idea of extracting more money from them for the government.
What is the difference between 2009 and 2013? Why the Fourth Urn now when it was denied then? The difference lies in the support for the president from the other branches of government. In 2009, Mr. Zelaya was isolated since the Congress was controlled by his rival Mr. Micheletti and the Supreme Court was loyal to former Honduran President Carlos Flores. Mr. Zelaya had popular support, and he maintained the loyalty of the Honduran Armed Forces until he fired Chief of the Armed Forces General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez four days before the June 28 poll. In 2013, Mr. Lobo has the support of Mr. Hernández, who is also the National Party presidential candidate. The Supreme Court will not be a factor since the Congress has intimidated the justices. The Armed Forces are led by General René Osorio who was previously in charge of Mr. Lobo’s Presidential Guard.
What are the possible outcomes? Mr. Hernández fully expects to win the presidency outright using the full economic and political power of his position as head of the Congress. The opposition is divided between the Liberal Party candidate Mauricio Villeda and Mr. Zelaya’s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who heads the Liberty and Refoundation (Libre) Party founded by Mr. Zelaya after his return from exile in the Dominican Republic.
The Fourth Urn serves two purposes for Mr. Hernández. If he wins the November elections, he will assume the presidency in January 2014 and use the results of the Fourth Urn vote to justify convening the Constituent Assembly at the end of his first year or beginning of his second year. Mr. Hernández’s objective would be to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years and/or change the Constitution to permit reelection. Following the drafting of the new Constitution sometime during Mr. Hernández’s second year, the country will return to the polls where Mr. Hernández will hope to win a second term with the structure in place to continue in power for many years to come. This is similar to what Rafael Correa did in Ecuador with successful results.
In the unlikely event that Mr. Hernández does not win the November elections, the Fourth Urn gives him a viable Plan B. The total votes in favor of the Fourth Urn will likely outnumber the total votes of any single presidential candidate including the winner of the election. In this case, Mr. Lobo and Mr. Hernández could declare that the true will of the people is the Constituent Assembly and not the results of the polls and convene the Constituent Assembly immediately. The government would either declare the election results invalid or ignore them. The delegates for the Constituent Assembly would be the current members of Congress, many of whom are not up for reelection and would not mind staying in power for a year or more.
In this scenario, Mr. Lobo knows he would not be reelected and Hernandez would probably not open Pandora’s Box to permit past presidents including Mr. Zelaya and the still-popular Carlos Flores to run again, so the Constituent Assembly would simply amplify the presidential term to six years and convoke new elections. Mr. Hernández would hope to use his power as president of the Constituent Assembly to reverse the result of the previous election.
So, while some of the actors have changed and the final result may be different, what is certain is that Honduras is headed for another turbulent election year. (1/24/13)