Efforts to speed up a public referendum on a controversial free-trade pact gained momentum this week when the Legislative Assembly approved a decree for a nationwide vote – though dissent over when and how the referendum should be convened continues, and high-court justices are now set to review the constitutionality of some aspects of the procedure.
The justices of the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), where the buck stops on most voting-related matters, must now decide between two options to convene the vote on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement on the United States (CAFTA): the joint assembly-Executive Branch decree, which could bring about a referendum as soon as August, or a signature-collection process by a group of citizens, which could take as many as 14 months.
Supporters of the latter method, including anti-CAFTA organizations such as the National Coordinator of the Fight Against CAFTA, claim the process of collecting signatures will help ensure voters become informed about the pact and their voting rights. Those who support the trade agreement say collecting signatures may take so long that Costa Rica will miss the March 2008 deadline for ratifying the pact, and risk being left out.
Assembly president Francisco Pacheco submitted the decree to the tribunal Wednesday. Interim tribunal president Luis Antonio Sobrado said last week that he and fellow justices expect to take approximately two weeks to decide between the two options.
Either way, the country is moving toward a historic event that was widely considered impossible just a few weeks ago. CAFTA, signed in 2004 and since ratified by all member countries except Costa Rica, had been moving slowly forward on its conflict-ridden congressional path, and causing political gridlock. Then, on April 12, a surprise decision from the Elections Tribunal that allowed ex-legislator and referendum proponent José Miguel Corrales to begin collecting signatures for a nationwide vote on the pact changed everything (TT, April 13).
Pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias, who had previously maintained that the assembly, not polling booths, was the proper place for a decision on the pact, reversed that position the following day and announced he would submit a referendum decree to the assembly (TT, April 20).
The decree, submitted to the assembly by the Executive Branch last week, needed 29 votes for approval; 48 legislators of the 53 present voted in favor, while 5 voted against.
Those five were José Merino of the Broad Front; Oscar López of the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE); Ronald Solís and Leda Zamora of the Citizen Action Party (PAC); and, oddly, Mario Quirós of the strongly pro-CAFTA Libertarian Movement.
Those in favor represented a broad consensus among the rest of the Libertarian Movement and PAC; the leading National Liberation Party; the Social Christian Unity Party (PAC); and the single-legislator National Restoration Party and National Union Party.
Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, praised this show of unity and urged Costa Ricans to turn out to vote once the referendum takes place.
The Union of Private-Sector Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP), which represents more than 40 private business chambers, praised the legislators’ “patriotism” in a statement and expressed hope that the referendum will take place in a timely manner.
Following the vote, however, some lawmakers planted seeds of doubt by asking for a review by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV). Those consultations won’t stop the Elections Tribunal planning process now under way, but they could throw a wrench in the proceedings later on, depending on the highcourt justices’ responses.
The first suit is a motion of unconstitutionality filed Tuesday by legislator López, alleging that the assembly did not follow proper procedure in approving the referendum
decree. Emilio Granados, the Access Without Exclusion (PASE) legislator’s chief of staff, told The Tico Times the alleged problem is that the assembly approved the decree during so-called “extraordinary sessions,” when the Executive Branch sets the agenda, instead of during “ordinary sessions” as the Referendum Law specifies.
“Don Oscar is in favor of a referendum, but (one convened through) citizen initiative,” Granados said of his boss.
Simultaneously, Citizen Action legislators – most of whom voted for the fast-track referendum, despite their opposition to CAFTA – announced in a statement that they plan to submit CAFTA itself to the Sala IV for constitutional review.
“We’re very clear that telling people to vote without having cleared up the doubts about constitutional conflicts in CAFTA would be a joke for the citizenry,” PAC faction head Elizabeth Fonseca said in the statement, echoing an argument made by many CAFTA opponents and others in recent weeks. Normally, the Sala IV reviews legislation for constitutional problems only after the Legislative Assembly approves it in first debate, but the prospect of the high court rejecting CAFTA after it’s approved by a costly nationwide vote is obviously problematic. (The referendum is expected to cost about ¢1.5 billion, or approximately $2.9 million, an amount the Election Tribunal’s Sobrado said his institution set aside last year in case of a referendum on any subject.)
Sobrado said last week that he and his fellow magistrates already asked the Sala IV to review CAFTA before the referendum, but the justices said they cannot review legislation until it’s approved (TT, April 20).
A group of constitutional experts from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) – which has formally adopted an anti-CAFTA stance – stated last week that the trade agreement contains several conflicts with the Constitution in its chapters on labor rights, the environment, telecommunications, territorial extension and the arms trade.
Activists Gear Up for CAFTA Campaign
Though key details of the upcoming referendum on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) are still pending – such as the date – evidence of campaign plans was already on display this week.
Most notably, Production Minister Alfredo Volio was reported to be leaving his post to head up the pro-CAFTA campaign, though Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias clarified Tuesday that Volio’s change in focus “is just a possibility.”
According to a statement from Casa Presidencial, Arias also indicated that if Volio does resign to promote CAFTA, his work will be “totally independent of government functions.”
Arias has said on previous occasions that the Executive Branch will respect all instructions from the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) regarding the referendum, and no public funds will be spent on pro-CAFTA propaganda.
TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado told reporters last week that the country’s Referendum Law places a limit of ¢4 million (approximately $7,690) in campaign spending per citizen and per company. Foreigners cannot contribute funds for referendum campaigning, he said.
Sobrado also explained that the TSE will not place any limit on the amount that can be spent by either side – that is, by CAFTA proponents or opponents. Unlike a presidential campaign, where a defined number of parties participates and the tribunal can place spending limits for those groups, the CAF TA debate is made up of “amorphous sides” with hundreds of organizations, he explained.
Asked whether the TSE will impose an “electoral silence,” or a period before the vote when no propaganda can take place, Sobrado said that’s one of the issues he and his fellow justices need to decide in the coming weeks.