Honduras Prepares for Sunday's Controversial Opinion Poll
A "Tense Calm" Settles Over the Country Amidst Media Spin Campaigns and Threats to Imprison Voters and Poll Workers
The situation in Honduras was tense but calm today as citizens prepared to vote in a national public opinion poll that will ask them if they wish to include a referendum on a new Constitutional Convention in the country's November elections. The tension is exacerbated by the partisan Honduran media, which, with few exceptions, has mounted a confusion and spin campaign against President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya.
On Thursday, President Zelaya and thousands of citizens stormed a Honduran air force base to rescue ballots that the military had refused to distribute. The controversial ballots say, "Do you think that the November 2009 general elections should include a fourth ballot box in order to make a decision about the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new Constitution?" Voters can respond "Yes" or "No." The first three ballot boxes in the general elections are for president, members of Congress, and mayor.
The Supreme Court, Congress, and the military actively oppose this weekend's poll. Zelaya's original proposal for the poll, a legally binding consultation that asked the same exact question as the poll, was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. The basis for the Supreme Court decision is that seven of its 379 articles are not subject to reform, according to the current Constitution. The Supreme Court ordered the country's military and police to not comply with President Zelaya's orders to distribute the ballot boxes, and threatened those that did distribute the ballot boxes with 8-12 years in prison for "abuse of authority."
The military complied with the Supreme Court's orders, refusing to distribute the ballot boxes and keeping them guarded on a military base. In response, Zelaya fired Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military reacted by deploying to the Presidential Palace, the airport, and the borders, causing Hondurans and the global community to fear that a coup was in the works. Undeterred, Zelaya and his supporters seized the ballot boxes from the air force base and distributed them themselves ahead of this weekend's poll.
Honduran Congress, meanwhile, began an investigation into Zelaya over his "administrative actions" and his mental health, essentially looking for a way to impeach and depose Zelaya. Members of Congressional commission in charge of investigating Zelaya's actions have reportedly said that because the commission has concluded that Zelaya has broken the law, it will recommend to the entire Congress that Zelaya be removed from office.
In an attempt to counter the Supreme Court's argument that the proposed consultation was illegal, Zelaya reclassified the legally binding "consultation" as a non-legally binding "public opinion poll." "That poll has no binding character," argued Zelaya during a Friday press conference. "That is, its result--yes or no--does not obligate the state to do anything. It's a public opinion poll. It's a poll that does not create new rights, does not create a new law." Zelaya argues that in carrying out a public opinion poll that isn't legally binding, he is perfectly within his rights as defined in Honduras' Citizen Participation Law, which gives Honduran citizens the right to influence the government through referendums, consultations, and polls.
Cesar Ham, president of the leftist Democratic Unification Party, reports that all of the 15,000 ballot boxes and 2 million ballots have been distributed throughout the country in preparation for tomorrow's poll.
Threats and Intimidation
With the ballot boxes now under Zelaya's control and the whole world pre-emptively condemning an attempted coup, anti-Zelaya forces are now doing everything they can to keep citizens away from the polls tomorrow.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office has announced that people who set up polling stations or promote or vote in the poll will be breaking the law and could be subject to legal action.
Honduras' conservative, anti-Zelaya daily El Heraldo has warned of "the possibility of rioting carried out by protesters who support ripping apart the Constitution," which, combined with recent coup fears, is likely to scare at least some potential voters away from the polls.
Honduras' anti-Zelaya Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, along with opposition political parties and the Civil Democratic Union--a conservative organization lead by business leaders, churches, and opposition politicians--have called for a boycott of the opinion poll, still claiming that it is illegal despite the fact that it is not legally binding. Boycotts are a common strategy to delegitimize elections, because in the event of a landslide victory, they allow the opposition to claim that the victory was due to a citizen boycott and does not represent the actual will of the people. Human Rights Commissioner Custodio called those who vote in tomorrow's poll "clowns" and said that those who oppose a Constitutional reform shouldn't vote.
A website, cuartaurna.com, has been set up by anonymous "Hondurans" (that's is the only way they identify themselves) as an alternative to tomorrow's paper ballots. While Zelaya's opinion poll only asks one question, "Do you think that the November 2009 general elections should include a fourth ballot box in order to make a decision about the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new Constitution?," cuartaurna.com asks eight questions, including "Would you believe in this process' results if there are not accredited international observers to attest to its veracity?" and "Do you support permitting the indefinite reelection of a president?" The questions are obviously loaded: the Honduran Congress--not Zelaya--barred international observers from the Organization of American States from the country, so the blame for the lack of independent third-party verification of tomorrow's poll results falls squarely on Congress' shoulders. Furthermore, the question of whether or not a new Constitution would allow a president to serve more than one term is an issue created by the right wing and echoed in the conservative press until it was considered fact. As will be discussed in more detail below, Zelaya does not seek re-election.
El Heraldo has begun to track cuartaurna.com's "poll" results as if they were verified and legitimate. El Heraldo reported, "cuartaurna.com has registered almost 20,000 votes, with the overwhelming majority rejecting the popular opinion poll." cuartaurna.com does not block foreign IP addresses, and its mechanism for preventing double votes is woefully inadequate. This reporter has been able to vote in cuartaurna.com's opinion poll three times in the past hour from the same Mexican IP address.
Right-wing Echo Chamber
El Heraldo's constant campaign against Zelaya and the opinion poll is far from isolated; Honduras' conservative right-wing media is pulling out all the stops to discredit Zelaya and those who are pushing for a new Constitution.
By far the biggest lie being promulgated by the Honduran press is that Zelaya wants a new constitution so that he can be re-elected (Honduran presidents can by law only serve one term). This lie has been repeated so often in the Honduran press that it is now internationally considered to be a fact. An AFP article perfectly demonstrates how the right-wing echo chamber is at work against Zelaya. In an article entitled, "Zelaya Also Wants Presidential Re-election," the only mention of Zelaya wishing to add the possibility of re-election to a new Constitution is the last paragraph: "Zelaya, who has turned the conservative Liberal Party into a leftist one and joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), ends his term next January 27. But, according to critics, Zelaya's intention is to extend his presidential term, with the help of ALBA, in order to guarantee his continued power and implant the socialist model" [emphasis added].
The right-wing media, when pressed to prove its claim that Zelaya wants re-election, is forced to admit that Zelaya has never said that he seeks re-election. Honduras' La Prensa, in a timeline entitled "Honduras: The Illegal Route to the Fourth Ballot Box," quotes Zelaya as saying, "I will propose a fourth ballot box [the referendum on the Constitutional Convention], but this won't prolong my term for even one day." La Prensa insinuates that Zelaya is lying by writing, "He made that statement on February 17, coincidentally one day before the Venezuelan referendum regarding a change to the Constitution that gave Chavez the green light for re-election." La Prensa goes on to write, "On Friday the 13th, superstitiously known as a day of bad luck, President Zelaya raised his voice in support of re-election in a military ceremony. It was on that day that Zelaya recognized that he wished to continue in power, and that it was necessary to reform the Constitution, which could be done thanks to approval in a popular opinion poll. 'I am a democrat and the people need to be asked the question. It is the people that have to respond, and no one else can respond.'" Note that the out-of-context Zelaya quote La Prensa chose does not mention anything about re-election--it is La Prensa that says Zelaya wants re-election, not Zelaya himself.
The lie that Zelaya is pushing for a new Constitution so that he can be re-elected has been repeated so many times that even self-proclaimed western hemisphere experts are parroting it. The third sentence in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs' (COHA) analysis entitled "Political Reform in President Zelaya's Honduras" states: "As a result of this referendum, the president hopes to eliminate the one-term limit placed on Honduran presidents." As previously stated, the ballot for tomorrow's poll only asks one question, "Do you think that the November 2009 general elections should include a fourth ballot box in order to make a decision about the creation of a National Constitutional Assembly that would approve a new Constitution?" COHA obviously never checked the actual text of the ballot, because it writes that tomorrow's voting is to re-elect Zelaya--a claim that even the conservative Honduran press hasn't been brazen enough to make. COHA writes, "Later that day [on June 25] the Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared Zelaya’s re-election null and ordered the seizure of all ballot boxes and election-related materials." What re-election, COHA?
Despite media disinformation, coup fears, and government intimidation, polls open all over Honduras tomorrow at 7am, and close at 4pm. The government has announced that the poll results should be available tomorrow sometime after the polls close.