Why the Obama administration is right to support the Honduran election on Sunday

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A BREACH has opened among those countries that have sought to resolve the political crisis in the Central American nation of Honduras. One group is focused on restoring democracy to the country, through support for a national election scheduled for Sunday. A second faction places priority on putting ousted president Manuel Zelaya back in office -- even though few Hondurans want him back and his legal term expires in just two months. To its credit, the Obama administration is leading the support for the democratic option, even though that means departing from its policy of seeking consensus with the region's big powers.

Elections have often been used to restore constitutional order in unstable countries; they brought a peaceful end to Augusto Pinochet's right-wing dictatorship in Chile and to the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In the case of Honduras, the election solution is particularly appropriate, since one had been scheduled before Mr. Zelaya was arrested and illegally deported from the country in June. The candidates for president were chosen by a legal and orderly democratic process, with high participation; the vote will be supervised by an independent tribunal also established before the crisis.

Polls show that Hondurans are eager for the elections to occur. They have little taste for Mr. Zelaya, who embraced the leftist populism of Hugo Chávez while in office and was trying to follow the Venezuelan's model for dismantling democratic institutions. Last month, Mr. Zelaya accepted a U.S.-brokered deal that endorsed the elections while providing for the Honduran Congress to vote on whether to restore him to office for the remainder of his term. Yet when he was not immediately returned to power, Mr. Zelaya repudiated the plan. Now he and his supporters claim the election must be regarded as illegitimate, because Congress will not vote on his status until next week. Hondurans understandably wonder whether Mr. Zelaya's intention all along was to disrupt a democratic process that will send him to a well-deserved retirement.

Unfortunately, Mr. Zelaya has the backing not only of Mr. Chávez and his satellites but also of governments such as Brazil -- with which the Obama administration hoped to forge a regional partnership. The lesson of the Honduran crisis is that the United States cannot always pursue such multilateralism and also support democracy. Too many Latin American governments are more interested in backing leaders who share their political inclinations than in upholding the rule of law. While loudly denouncing the "coup" against Mr. Zelaya, they have ignored the rigging of elections and the violent suppression of opposition by fellow leftists. In rejecting their attempt to nullify Honduras's democratic vote this Sunday, the Obama administration has taken a relatively isolated stance -- and a correct one.

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