Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elections: reject, accept, or other?

In his usual thought-provoking way, boz offers a counter to the more widespread progressive position on the upcoming Honduran elections, outlining
the case for not rejecting elections in Honduras (note the double negative is on purpose), even if elections are not an ideal solution.
His argument has the following points (and I urge others to read them before reading the rest of my post; go ahead, I can wait): moving on; new leadership; beyond the presidency; don't prejudge; most Hondurans want elections; imperfect elections recognized all the time; and, for my purposes, the money paragraph:
Better than the alternative. Canceling or postponing elections is a serious action. If they're canceled, and the de facto government refuses to reinstitute Zelaya, then what? Micheletti remains as president? New president is named by Congress? Assuming the coup government won't let Zelaya return, the options other than elections are worse than holding an imperfect election. Those options definitely lead away democracy, while elections at least open the possibility for reestablishing democracy.
I want to suggest that whatever the merits of the other points, this one misses another possibility: maybe there are more than two alternatives; more than the two bad choices of recognizing an election conducted under extreme repression and violation of the rule of law, or rejecting it and with it the possibility of a future resolution for the innocent millions.

Zelaya and his government have suggested one such alternative, which boz rejects. That would involved rescheduling the election, allowing the outcome of congressional consideration of reinstating the president to precede the election. The main legal problem with rescheduling the election for sometime between now and the mandated inaugural date in January is that it violates the constitution, but not a clause that is unchangeable. The main pragmatic problem with rescheduling the election for later is that it is expensive. But this is surely something the international community could help with.

But boz's concerns with this involve neither of these, but rather, a purely political issue: what happens if the congress does not vote to reinstate Zelaya?

Under the terms of the (now-repudiated) Tegucigalpa/San Jose Accord, this was a risk President Zelaya accepted, so at that point, if he objected, it would be reasonable for the international community to change their position on the elections.

I think there should be no mystery about what would happen in this hypothetical scenario: the negotiation for the unity and national reconciliation government would have one fewer option for who should head the government, being forced to choose between Micheletti or a third party.

(This is, for me, one of the main reasons proceeding with forming that government before the decision about Zelaya is made makes no sense. If we accept that a unity government is negotiated between the parties, not imposed by one on the other, then one of the things up for negotiation is who would head it? a decision on Zelaya was therefore critical since without that, how would negotiators know if he would be accepted as head? for that matter: how do you ask prospective cabinet ministers to serve in a government whose head they do not know?)

Now, as I said, the call for postponing elections is one alternative to recognizing the November 29 exercise or rejecting it. The constitutional issues are open to solution by passing a congressional amendment to allow a delay in this year's election. But let's accept that getting Congress to do this is even more unlikely than getting them to vote on restoring Zelaya in advance of the election (which I personally think they are reluctant to do not because Zelaya could disrupt the election, but because voting on the record could be used against them in the campaign).

I still have problems with boz's suggestion that we accept an imperfect election and the will of the (slim) majority of the Honduran people, and get on with an election so new leadership can be put in place; and accept the (counter-factual) assertion that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is independent of the Micheletti government; and acknowledge that the candidates running were all selected prior to the coup (ignoring the barriers placed in the way of many candidates by the imposed restraints on civil liberties) and that there are local and congressional elections at stake as well as the presidency.

I do not see that what follows is that accepting the November 29 elections under the de facto regime will actually accomplish what he hopes they will:
New people make it more likely we can move past the ugly politics of the last five months.
Unfortunately, the two major candidates still in the race are by no means "new people". Each is closely tied to the coup, and either will suffer from the legacy of his participation in government before and after June 28. The coup will remain a spectral presence in Honduras long past January 2010, just as previous coups continue to shape the attitudes of the people.

I think there is a fundamental contradiction in the utopian hope boz expresses that
elections at least open the possibility for reestablishing democracy.
Depends what we mean by "democracy": and it is this very thing that has been at issue in the Zelaya administration's attempt to move from a rigged representational democracy to a democracy with broader popular participation.

Elections held under an illegal government taint the outcome for a considerable proportion of the population: and yes, the number who do not want elections is a minority, but it is a large minority.

Democracies are at their best concerned with ensuring that even minorities believe that the process that brought political opponents to office was fair. And I think there is no doubt that for those who oppose the de facto regime and want to see the president who was elected in 2005 restored to complete his term in office, the very notion of democracy has been damaged in ways that a recognizably more-imperfect-than-normal election will not heal.

So here's another option to add to the either/or of recognizing/rejecting the November 29 elections: if we agree that international observers will make little difference on the ground; and accepting that the de facto regime will play out this election no matter what; and acknowledging that the TSE will validate election results that a large number of Honduras will think resulted from fraud, no matter what else happens; there is still a kernel of truth to this one sentence in boz's post:
I think dealing with Lobo or Santos once they have been elected by a majority of Hondurans will be easier than dealing with Micheletti.
Yes. So why not wait until whoever is "elected" in November is inaugurated in January before making any moves to recognize the government?

Recognizing the elections of November legitimates the de facto regime and whitewashes the coup d'etat of June 28.

This would weaken, not strengthen, any claim to democratic representation that might be made by the president-elect.

Meanwhile, it does absolutely no harm to that future Honduran government-- and much potential good-- if they remain unrecognized between November and January. The international community could use that time to discuss what conditions would need to be met by the (now safely elected) government of 2010-2014 to ensure that Honduras merits re-admission to the OAS, and acceptance as a legitimate state. And the lack of recognition of the de facto regime could allow the next government to move away from the authors of the coup in a clearer way. Think of the rhetorical power that might come if the person declared the winner of the November election condemned the coup d'etat that cast doubt on his election.

Among the issues I would like to see on the table in such a scenario would be acknowledging that the coup d'etat was extra-legal; dismissal of the politically motivated prosecutions of opposition government officials that has ramped up under the de facto regime from an already unacceptable level; and repudiation of the militarization of society that has led to deaths, beatings, and intimidation for thousands of Hondurans-- a minority, yes, but a minority that deserves protection under the law, and a minority that disproportionately represents sectors such as social activists, gender rights activists and people of alternative sexual status, indigenous leaders, and union activists.

As long as we are engaging in hypothetical arguments about possible routes to democracy, I prefer one that does not include ever giving Roberto Micheletti and those propping him up, including the military, the imprimatur of the international community.


boz said...

...maybe there are more than two alternatives; more than the two bad choices of recognizing an election conducted under extreme repression and violation of the rule of law, or rejecting it and with it the possibility of a future resolution for the innocent millions.

That's the subject of my next post :)

I felt the need to write a post against rejecting elections to bookend my post on why elections wouldn't return democracy. Only then could I write a post about what to do facing two lousy options (accepting or rejecting election). You've already given that a good start. I'll probably take it in a slightly different direction.

David said...

I agree with the issue of thinking about conditions under which the international community might recognize the new government (except, probably, the US -- although the US needs to think about under what conditions it will lift the suspension of non-military humanitarian assistance)

Let's forget about the elections, odd as that sounds. Let's think about what might need to happen to bring Honduras back into the fold of the international community, starting with the OAS.

There's a debate tomorrow in the Permanent Council of the OAS tomorrow, which might be worth tracking.

David Marin-Guzman said...

The situation of boycotting the elections recalls to me Jose Saramago's novel Seeing, where an election is held but over 70 per cent of the ballots have been left blank. The civic lapse leaves the govt so confused they hold another election a week later, but this time 83 per cent of the ballots are blank. The situation sends the govt into a complete panic - they have no way to legitimise themselves nor even a real way to respond - and eventually its true character is revealed. Considering how much the coup govt has relied on supposedly legal and democratic arguments for ousting Zelaya, this would be the perfect rejection of it - not just a rejection of the coup govt but of the very political structure that enabled it and gave it legitimacy.

As it stands, the options being presented are options defined by the coup govt. The most radical thing to do is to reject even the very frame of this decision. Only then will the coup govt be exposed for what it is. I imagine this would be what they fear the most.

Nell said...

The Honduran military's role in this coup has been decisive. It's now growing, and increasingly open. The consistent denial and minimization of the military's role by the U.S. government had had correspondingly more serious consequences. Any discussion of "re-establishing democracy" must deal with how the military are to be reined in.

The administration's refusal to make the formal designation of a military coup during the period when it claimed to oppose the illegal Micheletti government was a strong signal to the coup-makers that they could hold out until the elections. The complete silence of U.S. officials about the military's murders, beatings, and arrests of non-violent demonstrators strengthened the climate of impunity in Honduras, and has greatly increased the danger to those opposing the coup.

Now it's become known that the military has sent letters to all the country's mayors asking for the names and phone numbers of resistance activists in their communities, which in the current context includes candidates who have withdrawn from the campaign and people encouraging a boycott of the elections. Our government's willingness to legitimate elections held under these conditions of dictatorship, and its refusal to criticize the crimes of the military or the civilians who head the coup government, makes us complicit in the intimidation, harassment, and violence the Honduran regime is now inflicting on citizens in resistance -- and in the worse crimes for which the way is being prepared.

For two months military and police squads have made nighttime sweeps through poor neighborhoods in the capital. In the last two weeks they've come to the homes of individual resistance activists where they've threatended, harassed, and beaten household members. The last five months of arrests, attacks, and assassinations leave little doubt about where things are headed if any substantial percentage of the mayors have supplied those lists (the letters went out in the last week of October; see here for text).

No discussion of putting Honduras back on a legal and constitutional footing, resolving the political crisis, and restoring international recognition and support -- much less anything that could be called reestablishing democracy -- can ignore the question of how the military can be hemmed in. And no answer to that question can avoid dealing with that military's prime sponsor, the U.S. government.

Anonymous said...

We Americans have one besetting foreign policy sin: we believe that democracy can solve all problems. Sadly, we have confused elections for democracy.

We cannot supply Honduras with democracy and, indeed, democracy is only part of what it needs. Terrible wrongs have been done. Wrongs are not set right with democracy, but with justice. Honduras has terrible problems. Solutions are not discovered with democracy, but with truth.

We could, at least in some small measure, supply Honduras with truth and justice. But we have none to give. Therefore, we should silence our howling hubris and admit that we have nothing to offer Honduras except our absence.


Doug Zylstra said...

Raj -

Any idea on the rumour that ballots are being numbered and thus being able to be correlated to the exact voter?

Global Teach In said...

I think this discussion slightly misses the point. It has always been more than just the coup. It is the larger class structure and weakness of economic and political accountability systems with or without Zelaya. You need a continual mobilization, with or without elections.

RNS said...

Doug, I'll take this one. Yes, the ballots are uniquely numbered. The numbers are there officially to support the audit procedures.

However, the published election procedures seem to indicate these numbers are recorded in the process, and if they're recorded at all, they could be used to relate individuals and their ballots.

In voting, the published procedure says you go in to a table, and turn over your ID. You hold out your hands for them to see you don't have any ink marks to indicate you already voted. The ID is then checked against the voting list, and if it matches, you are issued ballots. You mark your ballots and fold them once and return to the table. Your ballot is verified and then your ballot is "sealed" (stamped with a seal, I suspect). "Verified" isn't explained but could well include checking that the ballot papers you return are the same ones you were issued. At this point you can deposit them in the respective color coded urns. Next your finger is marked with indelible ink, and your ID returned.

The voting process is described in a La Tribuna article from yesterday.

Doug Zylstra said...


Thanks. Wasn't my intention to be alarmist; but the process as you describe does seem to leave open the possibility of later ballot inspection, perhaps not so much as to who one actually votes for (I doubt whether Micheletti actually strongly prefers a Liberal win at this point) but simply to prevent/deter null votes, especially in light of their stated determination to enforce the obligitory nature of the vote.

Unknown said...

That's the way we vote here in the Bahamas, actually. In part, it's to prevent floating ballots. Here where the number of voters are so small, it can be used if a race is very close (only a few votes) and enough votes are challenged to make a difference. If it goes to court and votes are thrown out, they can unseal the counterfoils to know which ballots to throw out. Fairly standard stuff.