Honduras poised to go to vote in bid to regain legitimacy

Electoral workers prepare boxes of ballots in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, for today's vote.
Electoral workers prepare boxes of ballots in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, for today's vote. (Arnulfo Franco/associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Sunday, November 29, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- This Central American country holds a presidential election Sunday in a bid to regain international legitimacy after a coup that has rattled the hemisphere and frustrated the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with Latin America.

The U.S. government is hoping the election will help resolve the crisis that exploded when the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya on June 28. But most nations in the region have declared they will not recognize the winner, saying that would ratify the coup.

Zelaya's removal has exposed the ineffectiveness of U.S. and international pressure to preserve democracy in a poor region long marked by strongman governments, analysts say. Despite the personal involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two American-brokered accords aimed at reversing the coup have unraveled.

The Obama administration finds itself accused by regional allies and others of abandoning its commitment to democracy for a more pragmatic solution.

"This will leave a bad aftertaste in people's mouths, the way the U.S., rightly or wrongly, rushed to condemn the coup, then for its own reasons, tried to backpedal," said Chris Sabatini, policy director at the business group Council of the Americas. "It will make the U.S. less of a trustworthy partner diplomatically."

U.S. officials say they have little choice but to recognize the long-planned election -- assuming it is fair -- as part of a solution to the crisis in this nation, a longtime American ally.

"What are we going to do, sit for four years and just condemn the coup?" a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters in Washington.

Sunday's vote will almost certainly end a brief spell of left-wing populism in the Honduran government, because the two leading candidates are prosperous businessmen with centrist platforms. Neither Zelaya nor the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, is on the ballot.

But the country's deep polarization is likely to continue. Spidery black graffiti cover the walls of squat pastel-painted buildings in this mountainous capital, stating, "We don't want coups!" and "The people demand their rights." Several small, crude bombs have exploded in recent days at state institutions and media outlets supportive of the de facto government. No one was harmed.

Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy since sneaking back into the country two months ago, has called for a boycott of the election.

The Honduran military detained Zelaya after he tried to hold a referendum that many feared was aimed at illegally extending his rule beyond the one-term limit. The wealthy rancher had increasingly alienated his country's political parties, the Catholic Church and the business community with his growing ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the leader of an anti-U.S. leftist alliance in Latin America.

Even before Zelaya's ouster, U.S. diplomats had discouraged a series of coup plots in Honduras. But when Zelaya fired the military leadership in June for refusing to help carry out his referendum, the generals gave the go-ahead to remove him, U.S. officials say. Acting on an arrest warrant from the Supreme Court, 200 soldiers stormed the presidential residence and bundled Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica.

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