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Posted by on Jul 1, 2009 in Breaking News, International, Politics | 12 comments

About That Referendum in Honduras

What’s interesting is that Fausta (linked via Memeorandum) and Dr. Steven Taylor (of Poliblog) give us the exact wording of the ballot initiative, in Spanish — which in turn is exactly the wording that Hilzoy quoted in her post at Obsidian Wings — and all three provide an English translation that is almost exactly the same (Hilzoy translates “ballot box” as “urn” but says she thinks that “ballot box” is the meaning). Yet, Hilzoy and Dr. Taylor interpret the text of the referendum quite differently than  Fausta does.

Here is the text of the initiative, in Spanish, with the English translation below:

¿Está de acuerdo que en las elecciones generales de 2009 se instale una cuarta urna en la cual el pueblo decida la convocatoria a una asamblea nacional constituyente? = Sí…….ó………..No.

Do you agree with the installation of a fourth ballot box during the 2009 general elections so that the people can decide on the calling of a national constituent assembly? Yes or no.

I took that from Dr. Taylor’s blog, but you can see that the translation is essentially the same at the two other blogs.

Here is Dr. Taylor’s take on the referendum’s wording (emphasis at the end is mine):

In other words: do you want there to be a ballot and a ballot box (Latin American elections often have one ballot per office and one ballot box per ballot) for the purpose of a referendum in November (alongside the presidential and congressional elections) to decide whether or not to call a constituent assembly to reform the constitution.


This is important for a variety of reasons.

1. This language was not about re-election.

2. Even if the plebiscite was allowed to go forward, the answer was “yes,” and the results were allowed to stand, Zelaya would not have been in a position to be re-elected in November.

This point is rather important, as it undercuts the argument of those in the US who support the coup (or whatever they want to call it) because Zelaya was “trying to pull a Chavez” i.e., the whole thing was about staying in power past his current constitutionally mandated term). Perhaps he was trying to extend his personal power, but not by directly using the plebiscite to extend his term. It may well be that the ultimate goal for Zelaya was personal power, but this is a more circuitous route than many are suggesting.

3. The fact that the president was initiating the process appears to be a clear violation of the constitution. Article 5 dictates that referenda are governed by a legislative process. Although I will note, there are a number of articles of the constitution that have been reformed via decree, the procedure for such actions is not clear to me at the moment (if you go here and search on “Decreto” you will see what I mean).2

As such, I continue to understand that there were grounds for legal action to be taken against Zelaya. However, I also continue to see no legal justification for the actual actions taken.

It’s hard to find fault with this reasoning. Taylor is clearly taking a nuanced, thoughtful position that is neither ideologically right or left.

By contrast, here is what Fausta had to say about the referendum (linked from Memeorandum; emphasis is in original):

This is in direct violation of the country’s Constitution, which forbids the President from calling for changes to the Constitution. Articles 373 and 374 of the Honduran Constitution specifically state that ammendments [sic] to the Constitution be approved by 2/3 of the votes in Congress AND specifically forbid any President of the country from extending term limits. The Constitution also says these two articles can not be ammended [sic].

The same article at La Prensa states that Zelaya prepared a decree ordering all institutions of the State to bring about the project, which Zelaya deemed “an official activity of the Government of the Republic”. This means that the notion that Zelaya’s referendum was non-biding [sic] is false. Zelaya clearly meant to make his Sunday referendum official and binding. La Prensa says the decree, dated June 26, was published Saturday June 27.

Many reports in the media make it sound like Zelaya came up with this project with short notice, and was removed with even shorter notice. La Prensa has a lengthy article (in Spanish) itemizing the timeline of Zelaya’s process of trying to bring about the Sunday referendum. Mel Zelaya first brought up “the fourth ballot box” idea on February 17th this year during a parade showcasing several tractors gifted by Hugo Chávez, two days after Chávez’s own referendum extending indefinitely his term in Venezuela.

I understand that the Honduran Constitution does not allow the president to be re-elected, that the Constitution says that this provision cannot be amended (weird though that sounds) and that in calling for a referendum, binding or not (and I don’t understand the basis for Fausta’s insistence that the referendum was not non-binding), Zelaya overreached his authority, because only the Honduran Congress can call for a constitutional assembly. What I do not understand is Fausta’s hysteria over a power grab that certainly is no more egregious than any of the Bush administration’s power grabs. Why does she feel that deposing Zelaya by military force and exiling him from the country is an appropriate — much less constitutional — response to some heavy-handed political overreaching by the president? The extremity of that response does not seem to me to be at all proportional to Zelaya’s actions.

Now contrast Fausta’s response to that of Hilzoy — who acknowledges she has no expertise on Honduran politics, but she still manages to ask intelligent questions that deserve answers:

Apparently, the Supreme Court ruled that this referendum is unconstitutional, either because the President does not have the right to call referenda, or because “the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.” (Though why the latter would mean that the referendum is illegal, and not just that the proposed Assembly could not legally change those parts of the Constitution, is a mystery.)


For my part, I am puzzled. (Seriously: I know nothing about Honduras.) If holding an Assembly to revise the Constitution is such a bad idea, why not just vote no on the referendum? If the people would, in fact, like to have such an Assembly, why not have one? What, in short, is so scary about a referendum that simply asks whether people would like to have an Assembly that might revise the Constitution in as yet unspecified ways? And even if there’s some reason for thinking that it is scary, is this (seemingly) mild, non-binding referendum anywhere near threatening enough to hold a coup over?

I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to that question.

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