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  Number 334 | Mayo 2009
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Honduras

What’s Behind the Fourth Ballot Box?

What’s behind the “fourth ballot box” project launched by President Mel Zelaya? And what interests are served by the late independent candidacy of veteran union leader Carlos Humberto Reyes?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

According to veteran union leader Carlos Humberto Reyes, “Mel Zelaya knows how to kick a soccer ball with either foot. Sometimes he uses his left to kick the ball toward the right and at others he uses the right to send it left.” Reyes is currently in the middle of a campaign to allow his registration as an independent candidate for the general elections scheduled for the last Sunday of November.

The bad calculation of
Zelaya and his “patricians”

The country has been stirred up by what is known as the “fourth ballot box,” a proposal to add a national referendum on drafting a new Constitution. It is the last card in the attempt of Zelaya’s team, known as the “patricians,” to prolong themselves in government at the end of this four-year term. All roads have been closing to them, and the framework they recently constructed to join the Latin American trade bloc known as the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA) Alliance—led by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela—appears to be falling apart. The consolidation of the government’s international relations with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua has been in inverse proportion to its internal erosion and loss of presence among the country’s power sectors.

While Mel and his team went to a lot of trouble to consolidate themselves in the presidency in order to push their political project from there, they ignored the work required within the Liberal Party to such an extent that they actually abandoned it in practice. The patricians paid very dearly for this political error in April, when the traditional Liberal sectors took over the party structures and eliminated anyone holding the reins in the presidency.

As president of the party, Patricia Rodas made a miscalculation by believing herself to be more important than she really was, ignoring party work and dedicating herself to running state policy from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. She achieved close links with Hugo Chávez, but couldn’t transform her party or reciprocate her oil-wielding friend by organizing a firm political base to back her group and provide continuity for her government.

Are the articles against
re-election carved in stone?

In this framework, the fourth ballot box takes on even greater relevance. During general elections in Honduras, each voter gets three ballots. The first is for presidential and vice presidential candidates, the second for parliamentary representatives and the third for the voter’s respective municipal mayor. Hence, three ballot boxes.

According to the Honduran Constitution, parliamentary representatives and mayors can run for reelection, but not Presidents. In fact, even proposing presidential reelection has been viewed as treason. The articles establishing a single term are considered to be carved in stone and not to be reformed for any reason. The current Constitution was produced by a Constituent Assembly convened in 1980, and according to specialists these articles were formulated because of fear that the military would infringe on the tender democracy and decide to hang on to state power through rigged elections.

Three decades later, the military is no longer the absolute decider of the country’s political life. In fact it has been relegated in importance, with many military leaders forced to take refuge in the subterranean corridors of organized crime or in the profitable private security business. With the arguments used to defend the articles against reelection dissipated, previous administrations—both those of Callejas and Flores Facussé, for example—discretely raised the issue in public. Their circles of followers, who wanted to smash the stone tablets impeding their President’s re-election, pushed the issue much more zealously.

Today, the only argument for preserving the prohibition that carries any political weight in Honduras is that there’s a long waiting list of politicians aspiring to the post. All politicians express a desire to run for elected posts, which they invariably see as a way to catapult themselves to the top.

The shadow of Chávez?

The Constitution has been reformed to tweak fundamental issues about 30 times, and at this point politicians from both Left and Right are convinced the document no longer holds together, although only some say so out loud while others do so under their breath.

Mel Zelaya and his patricians have decided to propose the change formally. Their idea is for all polling places to have four ballot boxes this time, with the fourth one used for a referendum on the issue. All voters would receive a ballot that they would mark either “Yes” or “No” in response to the question “Do you agree with convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new Constitution?” The idea basically expresses the pretentions of the President’s team, who want to prolong his (and obviously their own) mandate beyond the four-year term currently established in the Constitution. The rest of the political class agrees with the referendum, but most are unhappy with the man promoting it, because they see Hugo Chávez’s shadow lurking behind the fourth ballot box.

No smoke without fire…

To get the referendum included, the government has launched a campaign for a “popular consultation” to be held at the end of June. The aim is to create the conditions to oblige the National Congress to approve the fourth ballot box in November’s general elections.

The barons controlling the two traditionally dominant but now highly discredited political forces, the National and Liberal Parties, expect society to back the consultation. Perceiving an interest in a revitalizing transformation of their parties, they launched their own campaigns in May to channel this interest in their own favor, and, while they’re at it, rob Zelaya of his “ownership” of the fourth ballot box idea.

The brick wall of the electoral law

It was in this agitated environment that union leader Carlos Humberto Reyes unveiled his proposal to run as an independent candidate. Such an option isn’t at all easy. The concept has been discussed for several years and the current National Human Rights Commissioner, veteran human rights defender Ramón Custodio, even tried it eight years ago. But he ran up against the brick wall of the Electoral and Political Organizations Law, created by Liberal and National lawyers to prevent any upstart from putting their historical bipartite system at risk.

This legislation has clearly anti-democratic features: one either accepts the conditions imposed by the traditional parties in order to participate, or is closed out of the electoral competition and hence out of the country’s “democracy.”

Over three years ago, a debate on independent candidacies opened up among Honduras’ organized grassroots movement. But it came to nothing because the questioned elements of that law have been inculcated into the minds of the small leftist sectors. The proposal to launch independent candidates to run on the contents of the movement’s struggle didn’t go down well with leaders who could only consider electoral participation from the narrow perspective of the existing leftwing political parties.

Like so many others, that debate was derailed by the pressing needs of the moment. Now, after the conflicts within the tiny Democratic Unification Party reached irreconcilable extremes, the leaders of the traditional grassroots movement, finding themselves in a fix, have decided to run an independent candidate.

Independent candidates
as one way forward

Independent candidacies are an appropriate way to break with over a century of bipartite politics. Because Honduran society views the Liberal and National Parties as the most discredited institutions in the country, there is a growing trend toward electoral abstention. In short, people want nothing to do with the existing parties.

Apart from abstention, people have four options in the elections: vote for one of the two traditional parties, vote for one
of the three other tiny parties, establish a new party or run an independent candidate. For 28 years, most people have gone for one of the first two options, but for a long time it has been with ever less enthusiasm.

As the polls insist that political parties are discredited, simply establishing a new one would appear to go against society’s feelings and desires. The only path thus worth exploring is that of independent candidacies, because when people reject political parties they tend to seek arenas in which they can participate and express themselves. That makes this a good time for the social movements that are building themselves up around their own territorial realities, where ordinary people are living and fighting. Independent candidacies are thus becoming an instrument the social movements could use to influence state decisions directly, if they can maintain their critical consciousness.

Is now the right moment?

The idea of independent candidacies hasn’t triggered any conflict and in fact there’s sizable consensus that they need to be promoted. Similarly there’s no conflict over the proposal of grassroots organizations to promote Carlos Humberto Reyes as an independent candidate for President of Honduras. He is a consensus figure, a veteran of honest fights within the union and grassroots movement. Where the conflict arises is over the moment chosen by grassroots leaders to launch this proposal, which came at the end of April, with no prior process to guarantee a serious, mature and massive response from the different grassroots social sectors.

The Electoral and Political Organizations Law establishes that an independent candidate must accompany registration with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal with 45,000 accredited supporting signatures. That’s enough people to fill either the Olympic Football Stadium or San Pedro Sula’s Morazán football stadium, and achieving it requires an impressive logistical deployment that the grassroots movement is far from achieving, even though Reyes’ candidacy only has a month to meet this requirement.

In the same boat

Launching an independent candidate under these conditions displays political irresponsibility by the grassroots leaders at the very least. But the launch was also made in a political atmosphere that at best is ambiguous regarding the movement’s real or mass media-induced links to Zelaya’s fourth ballot project. The media belonging to the country’s power groups are putting both proposals in the same sack of continuity, over which hovers Hugo Chavez’s shadow. Indeed, Zelaya and the leaders of the traditional grassroots movement do agree on several issues: ALBA; the Petrocaribe alliance with Venezuela to purchase oil on preferential terms; their fervor toward Chávez; and fiery leftist slogans devoid of any critical analysis.

The country’s most rightwing power sectors milked all possible arenas to present the executive branch as conspiring with leaders of the grassroots movement and engaged in both real and hypothetical alliances with the workers’ and union leadership. One tremendous example was the proposal made by National Congress president Roberto Micheletti in the second half of April that President Zelaya grant the working class what is referred to as the “fifteenth salary” on May Day in exchange for its full backing of the fourth ballot box.

An alliance of mutual manipulation

The fifteenth salary is a trap set by the most conservative business sectors. According to reliable data, the consumption of meat, milk and eggs fell by 35% during the first quarter of 2009 in relation to 2008 and the overall reduction in people’s purchasing power is 30% compared to 2008. Although the leaders of big business and commerce aren’t noticeably upset about the resulting hunger, which is particularly affecting children and the elderly, they are worried about such a drastic reduction in spending.

It was curious that the proposal for the fifteenth month’s salary established that in the future it would be applied in March, precisely when people are preparing for the costs involved in the Holy Week vacations. The short-term vision behind the fifteenth month is clearly aimed only at stimulating consumerism.

A temporary alliance
of mutual manipulation

The reaction against it once again united the executive branch and leaders of the traditional grassroots movement. Zelaya exploited the movement’s need to be heard and the desire for a lead role by certain enthusiastic leaders who seem unable to distinguish the Mel Zelaya who once made an alliance with the ultra-conservative Micheletti from the Mel Zelaya who embraces Chávez amid revolutionary slogans.

But Zelaya and his team are mistaken if they think they have the grassroots movement in their pockets. Its leaders are also exploiting Zelaya to further their own claims and using the government as a lever to present themselves as the real representatives of the continent’s Left in Honduras. In other words, this is a temporary alliance of mutual manipulation.

Another of the same old reforms

The independent candidacy is an instrument for a real break with the bi-party system. But the extremely late launching of Carlos Humberto Reyes’s candidacy and its links with the interests of the executive branch could corrupt the nature of such a valuable instrument and lead the country’s power sectors to discredit it until it loses its teeth. It’s important for the grassroots movement to keep a critical capacity regarding this proposal and to establish a clear distance from the executive branch and the fourth ballot box, whose objective is to keep Zelaya in government at whatever cost.

Honduras needs a change of direction and new legislation that responds to the challenges of this complex 21st century.
A Constitution changed piecemeal every time it suited the official political class can’t go on being the legal instrument that regulates the country’s life. The real debate isn’t the relevance of constitutional reform, but rather the intentions behind that fourth ballot box. If the idea is to clean up the image of the political class, it would be just another instrument like the reform to elect Supreme Court, Supreme Electoral Tribunal or Supreme Court of Audit magistrates. Honduras’ laws are reformed mainly to satisfy the power ambitions of the politicians themselves, some of whom dress in Nationalist blue, others in Liberal red, all the while making a show of wearing the blue and white of the national flag.

The fourth ballot box
Honduras really needs

What use is a fourth ballot box that produces a constituent assembly of the same old politicians to draft a new Constitution that responds to and updates the interests of the same old political class? The country needs a fourth ballot box that brings together the interests of all the different social and grassroots sectors fighting for a different country to the one built up for decades by the caste of traditional politicians. It needs a fourth ballot box that represents the desires of communities organized in their own territories and contains a proposal for a sovereign country that respects the dignity of its poorest people.

Ismael Morena, SJ, is the envío correspondend in Honduras.

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