The kidnapping and ouster of Honduran president Zelaya appears to have violated a fundamental principle of democracy. But appearances can be deceiving.
Shortly after reports confirmed that the Honduran military had forced duly elected president Manuel Zelaya into exile, the nations of the world mounted a common front to condemn the coup. International organizations and foreign leaders were as categorically critical as the military had been brutally swift in expelling Zelaya from the country he once governed. The United Nations demanded Zelaya’s immediate return to Honduras, the Organization of American States suspended Honduras from its membership, and the European Union denounced the military action. The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, France, Spain, Canada, and others joined a bloc of Latin American nations in shouting their indignation.
The world’s outrage may well have been warranted. After all, far from politely urging Zelaya to consider resigning his office for the greater good of the nation, Honduran forces reportedly broke into his home late at night, confronted and detained his personal security detail, and jarred the president out of his slumber with sounds of gunfire. Within minutes, Zelaya had been captured by masked men, removed from his home, and placed aboard a military airplane, destination unknown (at least to Zelaya). It was not until the plane had touched down in Costa Rica that Zelaya – still wearing his pyjamas – finally knew his location.
Few would defend the alarming manner in which the military stripped Zelaya of his presidential authority. Fewer still would see legitimacy in it. For by elevating itself above the constitutional order governing the peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one elected leader to the next, the military appears to have violated one of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy.
But appearances can often be deceiving. That is especially true of this latest Honduran coup. Indeed, what at first seems like an incontrovertibly illegitimate affront to democratic values begins to look justifiable with the benefit of a few key facts that have not travelled the media as virally as the salacious details of Zelaya’s late-night abduction.
Begin with the undisputed political context leading up to Zelaya’s removal from Honduras. As president, Zelaya had seen support for his presidency tumble to historic lows not only among opposition parties – which had been gracious in defeat following his 2006 presidential victory – but also in the larger population, and most ominously within his own party.
Inexplicably undeterred by his evaporating popular approval, Zelaya became an army of one, intent on overriding a provision in the Honduran Constitution limiting him to no more than one four-year term as president. This unique constitutional prohibition barring Honduran presidents from serving more than one term is unlike most other constitutional provisions, which are generally subject to constitutional amendment by special citizen or legislative majorities. This provision – article 239 of the Honduran Constitution – is expressly designated in the text of the constitution as *unamendable*, forever and always. Those who dare to even propose to amend it are subject to harsh civil penalties.
Granted, the very thought that a constitutional provision could ever be unamendable may strike us as odd, particularly given our reverence for participatory democracy and our abiding respect for popular sovereignty. But that is the choice Hondurans have made for themselves. We who do not live under their constitution must respect the constitutional course they have charted.
Returning now to Zeyala, despite the express constitutional prohibition forbidding him from taking steps to amend the presidential term limit, he nevertheless pushed ahead. No wonder, then, that Zelaya found himself standing alone in his audacious bid to rewrite the constitution, staring down a united opposition that was predictably led by his political adversaries but less predictably also included the Congress, the bipartisan Attorney General, the nation’s highest court, and the independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal. As for the military, it did not act on its own. Quite the contrary, the Honduran Supreme Court had ordered the military to detain Zelaya on charges of treason and abuse of power.
Against this backdrop, the military action to remove Zelaya from power begins to look less like a disquieting plot to undermine the Honduran constitutional order, and more like a noble effort to uphold the democratic principles that sustain it. And so while Zelaya continues to claim that he was “kidnapped with force, violence and brutality,” we should remember that it was in fact Zelaya himself who had earlier tried to kidnap the Honduran constitution by circumventing the constitutional ban on presidential term limits. This latest Honduran coup may therefore be one of the few that can lay claim to legitimacy.