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Honduras legalizes reelection – issue at heart of 2009 coup

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Jorge Cabrera/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Honduras' former President Manuel Zelaya (2nd l.) and his wife Xiomara Castro (r.) greet supporters in Santa Barbara, Honduras, July 1, 2012.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Former Presidents may now seek reelection in Honduras.

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That is the effect of the Constitutional Branch decision having been published at 5 pm on Friday (April 24) in La Gaceta, the official publication of the Honduran government.

How the publication of this decision happened is informative: someone fast-tracked the process.

As we previously noted, last week the Constitutional Branch debated and passed a resolution unanimously declaring that the portions of the Honduran constitution and penal code that prohibit reelection of Presidents were unconstitutional. All 5 justices signed that decision, which was then leaked to the press by someone employed by the court, an "official" leak.

Overnight between April 22 and 23 the political clamor on both sides of the issue was intense.

Officially, only the National Party is in support of the decision, and it was a National Party ex-president and National Party Congressmen that had challenged the constitutional provision.

This fact becomes important when you realize that the Supreme Court, as constituted, was also selected while the National Party controlled the government, and that the Constitutional Branch contains current president Juan Orlando Hernández's hand picked candidates.

While president of Congress and campaigning for President, Hernández carried out a political purge of dubious legality, removing four of the five justices in the Constitutional Branch, replacing them with his own choices.  He has since replaced that fifth justice, promoting him to the position of Public Prosecutor.

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The three other major parties – the Liberal Party, Libre, and PAC – have all come out against reelection.  After all, the post-hoc justification offered for the 2009 coup was that somehow through an opinion survey, Manuel Zelaya Rosales would be able to be reelected.

Since joining Congress as a Libre Party member, Mr. Zelaya Rosales himself has come out against presidential reelection, as has the leader of PAC, Salvador Nasralla.

April 23 morning at 8 am, Justice Lizardo of the Constitutional Branch tried to rescind his signature on the decision.  Such an act, if upheld, would have made the decision not unanimous and would have forced the entire 15 justices of the court to hear the case and issue an opinion.  Lizardo based his recanting on the precarious legal theory that because the Constitutional Branch had not notified the legal representatives of the parties of a decision, he had room to act. This was where matters stood when we last bloggedabout this.

However, the Secretary of the Constitutional Branch chose to ignore Lizardo's letter notifying him of the change, and went ahead to disseminate the decision to the legal parties.

He also forwarded the decision to the Secretary of Congress, who then quickly forwarded it to ENAG, the government division that prints La Gaceta. Publishing congressional and executive decrees in La Gaceta is what puts them into effect. 

The Honduran Congress and Supreme Court have a long-standing dispute about when judicial decisions are effective, with those opposed to some Supreme Court decisions refusing to publish them, to try to ignore them. The Honduran Congress has historically tried to assert control over the constitutional effects of Supreme Court decisions, normally reviews and can even publicly discuss decisions before deciding to forward them to ENAG for publication. No such review was allowed to happen this time, a decision taken by the National Party leaders of Congress.

Everyone agrees that once a judicial decision is published in La Gaceta it is in effect. Normally the publication process takes weeks. ENAG normally publishes things in the order they are received, and it usually has a large backlog of things to publish, so that bills can take a month or more to be published.

April 24 at 5 pm this decision was officially published in La Gaceta. Someone clearly rushed this one into print.

The upshot: on April 24 Rafael Callejas, who brought the case, convened his campaign to regain the Presidency which he held as a National Party member from 1990 to 1994.

– Russell Sheptak, the co-author of the blog Honduras Culture and Politics, specializes in the study of colonial history and economic anthropology in this little-reported corner of Central America.