Monday, June 29, 2009

The Other Coup

. Monday, June 29, 2009

Honduras is in turmoil after the President was removed by the military after the President tried to hold a referendum that was deemed unconstitutional by both the National Congress and the Supreme Court. I know nothing about this, but these rundowns at Global Voices and The Field have a lot of information and reactions from Honduras (ht: Dish).

The impression that I get is that the President enjoys much popular support, but was prevented from seeking another term by the Honduran constitution. Hence the referendum to re-write the constitution to allow Zelaya to run for office again. President Zelaya ignored the rulings by the congress and courts, removed the top general of the Honduran army from his post, and tried to hold the referendum yesterday. At which time, the military removed Zelaya from the presidential palace and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

I've seen a few bloggers express dismay that the Iranian uprising has garnered so much more attention than the Honduran uprising. There is a clear reason for this: Iran is a large, geopolitically important country in the most unstable region in the world and has long been an antagonist of the West. Honduras... not so much. Still, it seems clear that the referendum should have been allowed to go forward, and the removal of democratically-elected presidents by the military is pretty much never a good thing.

At least we know the U.S. government wasn't involved. We can't even get the military on the phone. From the Times:

Obama administration officials said they were working with other members of the Organization of American States to ratchet up pressure on the Honduran military to end the coup and dismissed the prospect of outside military intervention in the matter.

“We think this can be resolved through dialogue,” said the senior administration official. However, he admitted that the Honduran military was not responding to calls from the American government.

UPDATE: Sanchez wonders which side is right:

Without pretending to any expertise on the Honduran political scene, here’s what I’ve gathered to be the context: Zelaya was pushing for a national referendum on whether he should be able to seek reelection, though the constitution limits him to a single term due to end in January. The country’s Supreme Court declared this move illegal, and the congress recently passed legislation similarly barring any such plebiscite, but Zelaya was apparently undissauded. This weekend, under an order from the Supreme Court, the military spirited Zelaya off to Costa Rica. The line of succession was observed, and the president of the congress, a member of Zelaya’s own party, ascended to the presidency with the confirmation of the legislature.

Grant that this is a mess either way, that this is hardly an outcome that a liberal democrat should feel comfortable with, and that there are almost certainly aspects of this that I’m missing. Is it actually obvious that Zelaya is on the side of “democracy” here?

Yes, that much is obvious. He wanted a referendum, and nothing is more democratic than a referendum. If Zelaya won, the constitution would have been effectively modified via a democratic process and power would have been redistributed from the National Congress and Supreme Court to him (which, presumably, is why they struck the referendum down). If Zelaya lost the referendum then (again presumably) he would have stepped down.

What Sanchez means to ask, i think, is whether liberal-minded people should always and everywhere support the "will of the people" when that involves tearing down legitimate political institutions. I don't think there's an general rule that answers this question satisfactorily in all cases. I tend to side with institutions more than popular whims, but that's because I think that durable institutions can serve the polity much better than a democratic society that careens from one extreme to another every decade or so. However, if the institutions are not legitimate -- if they do not reflect the will of the people -- then they should be reformed.

In this case I don't know whether referendums of this sort are allowed by the Honduran constitution. It's quite possible that they aren't, and that Zelaya was violating the law by pushing for one. But saying that is not the same as saying that he is acting undemocratically.


The Other Coup
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