What can we expect in the coming months? Here’s a rough idea.
The Legislative Assembly must vote on the Executive Branch’s decree for a referendum on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), submitted to them Tuesday. Assembly president Francisco Pacheco, of the National Liberation Party (PLN) that brought pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias to power last year, said this week the vote should take place in short order, as support for the measure is widespread and the Referendum Law allows only one legislative session for discussion and voting. If legislators approve the decree, it will move on to the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE); if they reject it, the future of the referendum will depend on proponent José Miguel Corrales’ ability to collect roughly 132,000 signatures (5% of eligible voters).
If the decree moves to the TSE, election officials then have unlimited time to make their next move – though TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado says they’ll take no more than two weeks. They must decide whether to convene the referendum through the Executive Branch-Legislative Assembly decree, which would take about three months, or through the signatures-collecting method, which could take up to 14 months. They must also establish whether a minimum of 30% or 40% voter turnout will be required for the referendum to be binding. (Last year’s presidential elections drew approximately 70% of voters, while December’s municipal elections drew only 22%.)
The determination of voter turnout will depend on assembly president Pacheco’s final decision, expected shortly, regarding whether CAFTA’s approval in the legislature would require a simple majority of 29 votes or a two-thirds majority of 38 votes. Sobrado explained that if Pacheco choose 29, the TSE will likely require a minimum participation of 30%, but if he chooses 38, they will require 40%. The issue of what kind of majority is required for CAFTA’s approval has been under debate for years and has been the subject of conflicting reports from the assembly’s Technical Services Department. It all comes down to Pacheco’s interpretation of whether CAFTA affects state powers, territorial integrity or the country’s political structure.
If the assembly decree is chosen – or after Corrales collects the required amount of signatures and the TSE validates them – a vote must take place within 90 days. It will take place on a Sunday near the end of that 90-day period, Sobrado explained, in order to give officials as much time as possible to prepare for the election.
If the required minimum number of voters turns out on Referendum Day, their decision whether or not to approve CAFTA will be binding. Sobrado said provisional results will likely be available the same day or the next, followed by an approximately 15-day official, manual count. If more participants vote in favor of the trade pact than against it, it will be published in the official government daily La Gaceta and become law. If the nays have it, CAFTA will be archived. This could be determined by a single vote, according to Sobrado.
During the whole process, legislative discussion of CAFTA will continue, though assembly president Pacheco must suspend that discussion if legislators are ready to vote before the referendum takes place. If voter turnout for the referendum doesn’t meet the TSE minimum, the decision-making power will be returned to the assembly.
The assembly is expected to continue discussing the CAFTA implementation legislation, which includes reforms to the telecommunications and insurance sectors, among others. Pacheco said this week that legislators can vote on those bills regardless of the fate of the trade pact, because “they make sense on their own… they’re laws the country has been postponing for years.”