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Honduran leader pushes ahead with divisive vote
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06/27/2009 07:01 PM
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President Manuel Zelaya enlisted government employees and his supporters Saturday to set up polling stations for a rogue referendum that opponents depicted as a power grab by the leftist leader.
Zelaya cast himself as the survivor of an attempted right-wing coup and vowed to forge ahead in his quest to reform the constitution, which prevents him from being re-elected.
Opponents, including a Congress led by Zelaya's own party, the Supreme Court, the military and others, warned voters to stay away from Sunday's vote, saying it would be neither fair nor safe.
"I would tell the people to stay calmly at home in order not to get involved in any incident or any violence by going to vote 'no,' because they might be assaulted by these mobs," National Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio said, referring to the president's supporters.
The Supreme Court and the attorney general have said the referendum is illegal because the constitution bars changes to some of its clauses, such as the ban on a president serving more than one term.
But many union and farm groups support Zelaya's push for the referendum, which he says is not aimed at allowing him to run for another term. He says it is meant to start the country on the road to reforming governmental practices that have excluded the nearly three-quarters of Hondurans who live in poverty.
The referendum itself would not change the constitution: It merely asks voters if they want to hold a vote during the November presidential election on whether to convoke an assembly to rewrite the charter.
Zelaya suggested Friday that he considered the refusal of the army to distribute ballots, a role given the military by law, and the refusal of the Supreme Court and Congress to support the vote to be part of "a technical coup against me."
So Zelaya says he led a crowd of supporters on to a military base this week to seize the ballots. He handed them out to his supporters to set up 15,000 polling stations at schools and community buildings for the Sunday vote.
Roman Catholic church leaders and Elvin Santos, a candidate for the presidential election in November from Zelaya's own Liberal Party, urged voters to stay home.
"Who distributed the materials and who will count the votes?" Santos said on HRN radio. "The government will, so there won't be any credibility."
Zelaya has drawn the vocal support of fellow leftist Latin American leaders - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who loosened re-election limits to allow himself to stay in power, and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
But Zelaya has seen his approval ratings fall over the past year at home, amid soaring food prices and worsening drug violence that has given Honduras one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
Some businesses in the capital, Tegucigalpa, closed earlier this week amid the rising tension.
"A lot of people are worried there will be a coup," said Julio Godoy, a 66-year-old retiree who supplements his pension driving a taxi through Tegucigalpa's hilly streets. "You have businesses closing, stores, even banks. That only causes more fear, even after they open again."
Godoy said he would not vote Sunday because he thinks Zelaya only wants to hold on to power despite the president's denial that is his goal. "This is why presidents are only allowed four years," Godoy said.
The streets were calm, with most Hondurans working or quietly going about weekend errands at the stores that opened. Zelaya's supporters drove dented sedans with loudspeakers through crowded neighborhoods, crowing that "the voice of the people must be heard."
"It's only a vote to allow the public to cast ballots directly and decide the future of the government," said Rosa Perez, who sells limes, eggs and candy from a street stall. "Why is that bad?"
Congress, which is led by members of Zelaya's party, has threatened to challenge Zelaya's mental capacity to remain in office.
On Friday, the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, claimed Zelaya's supporters might try to kill him. Offering few details, Micheletti, who would become president if Zelaya was removed from office, said it would be the fault of "the executive branch if something happens to my children, my wife or me."
Zelaya has adopted an increasingly populist style reminiscent of Chavez, with lengthy discourses denouncing the rich and allegations that he is the victim of a right-wing conspiracy.
"They are ready not only to sacrifice democracy, but me personally because they would have to capture me, tie me up ... and wipe me off the map," Zelaya said Friday.
"He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words." ~Elbert Hubbard