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FOCAL Views: The path to stability

The regularization of what have been universally seen as free and fair elections within Latin America and the Caribbean is an important achievement, but the elections alone cannot anchor democratic governance. One year after the Honduras military coup, we are reminded that it is not all smooth sailing.

Since the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009, there has been extensive debate on the potentially undemocratic nature of some constitutional clauses —in Honduras and elsewhere in the region. Whereas some analysts assert that no form of coup is acceptable —and thus should be dealt with as such— others rationalize the occurrence of this particular ousting as a relief valve from a problematic situation and emphasize that the military ceded power to the leader who was constitutionally next in line: Roberto Micheletti. However, there is broad consensus in the fact that some constitutional provisions exacerbated the political divide before the Honduras coup and complicated subsequent interpretations of the events leading up to it; this confused the range of viable solutions.

Presidential systems have fewer mechanisms to release political tension than do parliamentary systems. Instability in the former is exacerbated by competing claims to legitimacy based on the separate election of the legislature and the executive. Whereas leaders in parliamentary systems require the confidence of the legislature to govern, in presidential systems there is no such prerequisite; this makes it difficult to remove presidents.

Thus, presidents do not need to make compromises with other political actors and can seek extra-institutional means of resolving political impasses. In the Honduras case, Zelaya’s disregard for other political players in the months prior to his overthrow increased tensions and created a deadlock. Finally, his determination to hold a referendum —or non-binding public opinion consultation, as some have called it— regarding constitutional reform created a very real and understandable fear among his skeptics that he would use this to eliminate the one-term limit for presidents and seek re-election. Dialogue among Congress, the Supreme Court and the President quickly broke down.

When Zelaya was removed from power, the Organization of American States (OAS) responded with uncharacteristic clarity by unanimously condemning the coup and suspending Honduras’ membership. Further, harmony on the issue ended with the country’s suspension from the multilateral body. Fear of reverting to an age when the military had a strong role in politics amongst leaders who had survived the brutality of coups in their own countries continued to polarize the region and prevented it from moving forward to find solutions.

Later in November when elections were held and boycotted by international observers, many stakeholders consequently rejected the results. This demonstrated that elections cannot serve their intended purpose without an institutionalized political structure to uphold their legitimacy.

At the 40th OAS General Assembly held in June 2010 in Lima, Peru, member states agreed to send a high-level commission to Honduras to evaluate the country’s readmission. This is an important step toward cutting through political rhetoric in the hemisphere and ensuring that the Inter-American Democratic Charter is working to its full potential. The Charter is the paramount document designed to defend democratic principles in the region and assigns to the OAS the mandate to intervene to uphold democracy.

Many countries in the hemisphere including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have reformed or rewritten their constitutions in an attempt to make them more reflective of the will of the population and less susceptible to misinterpretation. In Honduras, constraining the power of the executive is an important issue. For constitutions to endure, they must embody long-term foresight and reflect the architecture of society rather than serve the political will of the day.blue square

This new section reflects our institutional position on current issues in the Americas. It presents collaborative opinion articles originating from staff, board members, non-resident fellows or colleagues at sister institutions.

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