Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When will Honduras have a Supreme Court? (And why it matters) (Feb. 9, 2016)

Ever since the 2009 coup in Honduras, the Supreme Court has played a starring role in some of the most important political controversies in that country, and this year is no exception. According to the Honduran Constitution, by January 25 of this year, the Honduran Congress should have selected 15 members of the Honduran Supreme Court, to serve together for a seven-year term (2016-2023).  These 15 should be chosen from a slate of 45 candidates, presented by a nominating board with a diverse make-up of political actors.  However, up until now, and following what observers have referred to as a flawed process, the Honduran Congress has been able to agree only upon eight justices. The fourth session to attempt to complete the roster will be held today, and El Heraldo is reporting that is some likelihood they will come to an agreement on the remaining seven justices.

The reason for the delay has everything to do with electoral politics, and how much has changed since the 2009 coup, but particularly in the last two years since the congressional make-up evolved from an essentially two-party system (with power divided between Liberals and Nationals) into a multi-party system (with two major opposition parties, LIBRE – headed by former President Manuel Zelaya – and the Anti-Corruption Party, or PAC, headed by Salvador Nasralla).  In the 2013 elections, the Liberals and Nationals fell three votes shy of a 2/3 majority – the amount required to elect the Supreme Court -- for the first time since the early 1980s.  So when it came time for Congress to a vote on the 15 justices agreed upon between the Nationals and Liberals, they could not muster votes for the entire package.

Until now, the opposition parties have been firm in resisting the imposition of the remaining candidates, basically protesting two major issues: (1) the fact that all of the candidates are only from the two traditional parties and (2) that many are incompetent, at best, or corrupt, at worst.  LIBRE has refused to negotiate at all, whereas the PAC has agreed to sign off on six candidates they think are relatively good, and conceding one other that was nominated by the government, according to a report last week in La Tribuna.  The PAC also conditioned its support on two longstanding electoral reform demands:  to include the four major parties in an Executive Electoral Council that would supervise the overhaul of the electoral system, and that a second round in the presidential race be required.

But just how reasonable are those demands? On the first point, it’s worth noting that the current Supreme Electoral Tribunal is run by authorities from the Liberals and Nationals, despite the fact that LIBRE is now the second largest party, but those authorities were hastily and prematurely elected before the current, more diverse Congress assumed power.  And on the second point, in fact it is no different than what all of the political parties agreed to before the last elections, and that included the assent of then-president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez (who took office on the first round with 37% of the vote). (See further details in the most recent Congressional Research Service report.)

Nevertheless, the Liberals and Nationals only need three votes, and El Heraldo is reporting this morning that it seems they will have two votes each from the PAC and LIBRE parties, giving them a safe margin of victory by one vote.  If this turns out to be the case, you might be asking yourself, just what kind of shenanigans took place behind the scenes to get these two legislators to vote for the National/Liberal package of justices?  

Well, the answer may well be found in recent allegations -- surfaced by Radio Globo reporter David Romero Ellner (and cited yesterday by the invaluable Honduras Culture and Politics blog) – that the National Party has been funneling money to a trade association, which in turn has paid off legislators to support various National Party projects, including for their Supreme Court candidates.  While this is excellent fodder for the yet-to-be-installed MACCIH (international anti-corruption commission), it remains to be seen if these charges will get any traction from the Attorney General’s office.

So why does all of this matter?  One can think of many reasons not to let the opposition into the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court, but none more important than staving off any attempt to reverse the prior, illegal ruling by the current constitutional court made last year in favor of presidential re-election. (And that ruling could only come about because Congress had, in 2012, illegally dismissed four of the five justices on the constitutional court – the lone justice left untouched was later rewarded with the post of Attorney General, Oscar Chinchilla, who continues to this day.)   Prior to this vote, which it appears the opposition parties might lose, a year ago they had been successful in defeating the President’s attempt to raise the status of the new military police in the Constitution.  But there will be only so much they can do if the Supreme Court elected for the next seven years remains beholden to the two traditional parties. 

-- guest analysis by David Holiday

News Briefs
  • A new study by study led by the Igarapé Institute and the Centro de Investigacio y Doencia Economicas (CIDE) explores the causes of the recent increase in criminal violence in Mexico City. Mexico's capital had a 20 percent increase in homicides last year and about a third of the population was victim of a crime. While the media popularly attributes the problem to conflicts between drug trafficking organizations, gangs, militias and a corrupt police force. The study's authors, Carlos Vilalta and Robert Muggah, found "a robust relationship between high-crime areas and what criminologists call 'social disorganization' and 'institutional anomie.' Put simply, crime is correlated with underdevelopment, income inequality, low voter turn-out, and the extent of family cohesion." The study is covered in an article in Stability Journal, and they have a brief in Americas Quarterly. The policy implications of the study are interesting: as family disruption is a good predictor of violent crime, they conclude that public authorities need to start investing more seriously in parental skills and childcare provision. They also recommend focusing law enforcement on crime hotspots, but not the usual temptations to deploy more police, throw more people in prison and increase penalties for crime.
  • In a welcome change from the stories on increasing Mexican crime, Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post looks at the success stories. "The pacification stories in northern Mexico offer two major insights: a) solving a security crisis in any given region requires significant bottom-up pressure on local and state authorities, and b) the solution cannot come from the outside. Every city and region needs to produce local leaders committed to transforming the security environment. Peace cannot be imposed by the federal government. That is inspiring, because it shows there is a way out, but also dispiriting because local leadership is a crucial ingredient of a pacification effort. And in most of Mexico, that leadership has been found sorely ineffective."
  • Five Guatemalan migrants in the Mexican border town of Reynosa were injured yesterday in a gas explosion in a house where dozens of abducted migrants were being held captive, reports the Associated Press.
  • Authorities have identified the remains of two young Mexicans, part of a group of five who were abducted weeks ago by state police in Veracruz and and handed over to members of a local criminal group, reports Reuters. The case is reminiscent of the 2014 abduction and apparent massacre of 43 students that sparked international outrage. (Animal Político has more coverage.)
  • In the latest of the Ciudad Juarez transformation genre (expect a lot more as the media gears up for the Pope's upcoming visit), the Los Angeles Times has a piece on how the border city has reinvented itself as the "Juarez es amor" with a 40 percent drop in homicides. Residents say they hope Francis and an expected 450,000 visitors see their city as a work in progress, safer but still struggling with crime and poverty.
  • Meanwhile the Papal visit to Ecatepec, a Mexico City suburb that is among the nation's most violent calls attention to the state and federal government’s unwillingness or inability to successfully address entrenched social issues that fester in many places of the country, according to the Associated Press.
  • Haitian PM Evans Paul called on citizens to stop protesting and join a dialogue to create an interim government, on the country's first day without an elected head, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The New York Times' newly dispatched Venezuela correspondent has an in-depth piece looking at a country that's looking like "Zimbabwe at the start of its collapse." He chronicles the a country moving deeper into economic disarray, and the quotidian coping mechanisms in "a country where hospitals already lack syringes, supermarkets struggle to stock basic goods, and the government has declared an economic emergency while sitting upon the world’s largest reserves of oil."
  • Zika corner: Investigators in Brazil are trying to prove, or debunk, the link between the Zika virus and babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly. Experts believe it will take six to nine months to begin to understand whether the virus is behind the babies born with birth defects. But it may take longer to reach scientific consensus, reports Reuters.
  • A study published in the Guardian (whose constant coverage should make it the go-to source for Zika obsessives) found that many Latin Americans have little faith in their countries' authorities' capacity to contain the virus, but agree with recommendations to avoid pregnancy in the near future.
  • Health authorities warn that Zika is rapidly spreading across Colombia and Venezuela, and that the porous border between the two countries could be the next hotspot for the mosquito-borne virus, reports the Wall Street Journal. In Venezuela in particular, the virus combines with a lack of medical supplies and equipment, as well as lack of public epidemiological information.
  • Experts say it is only a matter of time until Venezuela defaults on its international debt obligations, though the country is generally expected to make good on $1.5 billion in debt due later this month, reports the Wall Street Journal. Venezuela is one of the largest borrowers in the developing world, and hasn't defaulted since 1982. A default could ripple through emerging-market economies, many of which borrowed heavily when commodity prices were soaring.
  • Low oil prices are also impacting Mexico, where the Finance Minister announced more budget cuts for 2017, following similar reductions in 2015 and 2016, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appointed a new head of state-run oil company Pemex, with the goal of taking advantage of private partnerships permitted by the country's new energy laws and improving the company's finances, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentina's biggest holdout creditors refused an offer of more than 70 cents on the dollar. The proposal, which was accepted by two of the six biggest hedge funds suing the country, was made last week and is more generous than any of the previous offers, reports Bloomberg. Argentina is locked out of international credit markets until the situation is resolved.
  • In a New York Times blog Reynolds Holding and Martin Langfield analyze the situation and argue this could the time for Elliot Management, the biggest holdout, to cash out.
  • But the omens for a wider deal are not promising, however, reports the Economist. An eventual deal would require Congressional approval and the suspension of a law intended to avoid reopening the debt. (President Mauricio Macri could be helped by the recent defection of members of the majority opposition party in congress, see yesterday's briefs.)
  • Two well known Cuban baseball stars became the latest defectors in a wave of record defections that reached 150 last year, reports Reuters.
  • At least three people were killed and two injured in a shooting as hundreds gathered for an opposition party political rally in Jamaica on Sunday, reports NBC.
  • Angela Villón is the first sex worker to run for Peruvian congress. A longtime activist for sex workers, she is promising to legislate to improve women’s rights, decriminalize abortion in the case of rape, back civil unions and gay marriage, and fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of underage girls, reports the Guardian. She's running as a candidate for El Frente Amplio, a coalition of leftist parties and movements, in Peru's general and legislative elections in April.
  • Add a dash of color to the day: the Wall Street Journal has a Brazilian Carnival photo spread.

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