Honduran election offers hope for resolving constitutional crisis

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, November 27, 2009

The United States finds itself pretty much alone in supporting elections to be held this Sunday in embattled Honduras. It's enough to make you wonder whether, following the unilateral misadventures under George W. Bush, we might once again be on the wrong side of history.

With the exception of Panama, almost everyone else in the world maintains that the elections are illegitimate as long as the country's last elected president, Manuel Zelaya, remains deposed. The former lumber baron is hunkered down inside the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, sleeping on sofas and blustering to the media.

I firmly believe in multilateralism and compromise. As every spouse learns, the most important words to maintain peace are "yes, dear." But this is one of those times when you have to stand on principle. My bet is that the world will come around to Washington's view.

Though Zelaya was escorted out of the country at gunpoint while in his pajamas nearly five months ago, a realization has slowly spread across Latin America and Europe that this was not a standard military coup. The Honduran Supreme Court had ordered Zelaya's removal from office after he resorted to mob rule to carry out a referendum that the courts, the Honduran Congress, the electoral commission and his own attorney general had ruled unconstitutional. Zelaya, seeking to lift presidential term limits much as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez had done, had created a constitutional crisis. The military has since apologized for overstepping its bounds by depositing him abroad instead of in jail. Zelaya later sneaked back into the country and took refuge in the embassy.

Latin American nations, so fearful of coups that they didn't stop to consider the facts, blundered in trying to bring the de facto government to its knees by kicking it out of the Organization of American States. When the Hondurans refused to bow to OAS pressure, the hemispheric body, led by its ham-handed secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, was left with no negotiating leverage.

Only the United States responded with a calibrated approach, siding with the Latin American countries over how Zelaya was removed but being understanding enough to seek a mediated solution. For once, bipartisanship thrives. A group of Senate Republicans backed off from their blind thrashing at Chávez ghosts, and now the democracy institutes of both parties are sending election observers.

The elections were scheduled, the candidates were chosen and the electoral commission was appointed while Zelaya was still in office. As Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela told an OAS commission this week, "this is an election consistent with the constitutional mandate to elect the president and Congress."

What matters now is what happens on Sunday. If there is no widespread violence or fraud and if participation is more or less 50 percent, as in past elections, the international opposition is likely to crumble. As an earlier assistant secretary of state, Jeffrey Davidow, now at the University of California at San Diego, told me, "There will be new faces, and that will change the negotiating dynamic."

Porfirio Lobo of the opposition National Party is way ahead in polls. Though conservative, he has reached out to Zelaya and called for "a national dialogue" should he win. Under a U.S.-mediated agreement between Zelaya and the de facto government, the Honduran Congress is supposed to decide Zelaya's fate. It, too, leans toward a face-saving solution for him that maintains social peace.

Zelaya, however, now accuses Washington of "treachery" because it didn't force Honduran lawmakers to reinstate him before the election. He says he won't accept returning to office for the last two months before the new president's inauguration. He remains impetuous and irresponsible.

His stance feeds what Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, his former culture minister and now a visiting professor at Harvard, flatly predicts will be "a revolution." He says the past five months have created a new "paradigm" in which a largely leftist "resistance" favoring the country's poor and detached from the two main political parties will largely boycott the elections.

Perhaps. But the poor in Honduras are notoriously conservative in favoring stability over social upheaval, and the mainstream political establishment recognizes it must better address the country's deep poverty. The failings are real, but Zelaya's removal was less about class and more about law and politics.

There is thus good reason to believe that the election will come off favorably enough for Honduras to be accepted again. We will see on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, despite being alone, is right not to panic.

edward.schumachermatos @yahoo.com

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