Hard times for Honduran democracy

On June 28, Honduras was embroiled in a political crisis, specifically a – thus far – successful coup by the military, supported by both the judicial and the legislative branches of government. Progressive center-left President Manuel Zelaya was arrested and sent into exile by the military as a result of Zelaya’s attempt to push through a non-binding resolution calling for a referendum that would allow the constitution to be amended. The amendment in question would allow the president to run for a second term; currently the Honduran constitution only allows for the president to serve a single term.

Initially, it may seem to us like a power play by the President, an attempt to hold on to power for longer than he is allowed constitutionally. But when you look at the history of Honduran politics, things get a little more complex, and in fact, it begins to look a lot more like a power grab by the military.

Honduras has a long history of military dictatorship, on and off again from the mid-fifties until now.

Currently, the military in Honduras is ostensibly subservient to all branches of government, and under the direct control of the executive branch via the president, who is also the commander in chief. But as a matter of fact, the military acts as a strong-arm fourth branch of government – responsible for administering and overseeing elections, something not common in liberal democratic governments, and responsible for determining when the president is and is not acting unconstitutionally, again something wildly out of line with most liberal democracies. Further, it plays an active role in all national politics, in fact playing the leading role in much of it.

The constitution was also drafted and put in place following ten years of dictatorship by the military, but was written largely by a body elected during the dictatorship years, meaning that the military had a strong role in writing it in the first place, which is why they continue to play such a leading role in current politics, and which was why, it seems, the president can only serve one term, preventing the thuggish military from ever being dominated by a strong or leftist president for too long, while maintaining the veneer of democracy.

So, technically, the entire coup was completely legal. The catch is that the constitution itself is something of a burden on democracy.

Zelaya was elected in a fair and open election, and has always had a high approval rating in polls, suggesting wide support among the actual population of Honduras, and he enjoys the wide support of the international community, with the likes of not only Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro calling for his reinstatement, but also President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention the Organization of American States.

When looked at in this light, it seems that the military is once again attempting to take over the Honduran government, with seemingly full support of the strong center-right legislative and judicial branches of the current government. Let us hope that the United States, along with the OAS, can act quickly and put pressure on the Honduran military to cease its power grab. Supporting democracy internationally requires us to support Zelaya.

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