TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduran lawmakers on Tuesday put off a vote on whether to restore ousted President Manuel Zelaya and asked the Supreme Court for its view, bucking outside pressure to quickly end a four-month political crisis.
Their inaction leaves the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti in place and risks losing international support for a November 29 presidential election, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to the poor coffee- and textile-producing nation.
A board of 13 top lawmakers met and decided not to call a special session of Congress, currently in recess, until they receive non-binding opinions from the Supreme Court and the attorney general.
No timeline was established for a vote, throwing fresh uncertainty over the implementation of a U.S.-brokered deal signed last week to end the worst political upheaval in two decades in Central America.
“The majority voted to send the matter to the Supreme Court, but there were votes against that idea, from those who want to immediately vote on Zelaya’s restitution,” congressman Marvin Ponce of the Democratic Unification Party told Reuters.
The deal signed by negotiators for Zelaya and Micheletti says Congress must decide whether Zelaya, toppled in a June 28 coup, can return to serve out the rest of his term until January, but it sets no date for the legislature to vote.
Zelaya says he must be returned this week to comply with the deal. But the de facto government says the agreement could be fulfilled even without Zelaya’s reinstatement.
Outside the legislature, police in riot gear stood by as supporters of Zelaya, known as “Mel,” chanted, “Hang in there Mel, the people are rising up.”
Washington has praised the deal as a major breakthrough even as it remains unclear if it will lead to Zelaya’s return.
Chilean ex-President Ricardo Lagos and U.S. Labour Secretary Hilda Solis were in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday to lead a commission of the Organisation of American States, or OAS, to oversee fulfilment of the accords.
“What we are trying to implement is an agreement that means that President Zelaya has to be returned to power and at the same time to make sure that the elections, the presidential elections, are going to be fulfilled in a democratic way on November 29,” Lagos told reporters.
After the coup, Honduras was cut off diplomatically. The United States, the European Union and lenders suspended aid. The country this year planned on receiving foreign aid worth some 3.4 percent of gross domestic product, according to FOSDEH, a Honduran think tank.
Some experts said Congress could stall for some time by arguing it is waiting for a Supreme Court view, even though the agreement itself asked the court for a non-binding ruling.
“The accord is not at all favourable for Zelaya. It does not assure his restitution and it sets no date,” said Luis Cosenza, presidency minister for former President Ricardo Maduro.
Alvaro Calix, a social researcher, said some lawmakers are trying to impose a light interpretation of the accord. “They are hoping that some countries will decide to recognise the results of the election even if they don’t return Zelaya.”
With the 128-seat unicameral Congress in recess, many lawmakers are busy campaigning out in their districts.
Zelaya is still in the Brazilian embassy where he has been holed up since sneaking back from exile in September.
Under the accord, a unity government must be set up this week, but does not say who would preside over the government.
Congress and the Supreme Court both backed Zelaya’s ouster on the grounds that he had illegally sought a public vote on changing the constitution to allegedly allow presidential re-election. Congress named Micheletti as interim leader.
Zelaya and Micheletti are both from the Liberal Party, whose 62 lawmakers are divided over a Zelaya return.
The opposition National Party, with 55 seats in Congress, is seen as key to whether or not Zelaya is reinstalled.
Its presidential candidate, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, has a double digit lead in opinion polls and analysts say he is weighing whether or not to support Zelaya in Congress.
Smoothing the way for a Zelaya return could win foreign support for an eventual Lobo government, yet it could also scare away some Honduran voters who are anti-Zelaya after he cozied up to socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo, Javier Lopez and Sean Mattson in Tegucigalpa and Antonio de la Jara in Santiago; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray