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Democracy tested in Honduras

It is not news there is a crisis in Honduras: justice is pending and the upcoming elections are at risk. Unfortunately, the deeper nature of that crisis is being lost in a flurry of rhetoric and political posturing.

It is not news there is a crisis in Honduras: justice is pending and the upcoming elections are at risk.

Unfortunately, the deeper nature of that crisis is being lost in a flurry of rhetoric and political posturing.

Sadly, the Yukon News added to this through the publication of Honduras v. Goldcorp: Whose Side Are We On? on October 2nd.

To cast the situation in Honduras in the bipolar terms reminiscent of the cold war is to miss the more complex story which is that democratic institutions are being profoundly tested in a pluralistic society.

Since June 28th, the world has tuned into news emanating from Honduras.

Other than the occasional mention during hurricane season, announcements of electoral outcomes every four years and in the run-up to World Cup soccer, this Central American republic gets scant mention.

Recently, that changed.

Unfortunately, there was no international attention to events prior to June 28th, which would have helped frame events.

Had people focused on Honduras, we would have seen many troubling developments - especially the actions of a president and his cabinet suggesting they believed themselves above the law, the courts and the constitution.

In this context, Honduras’ system of checks and balances and the rule of law have been tested.

Happily, for 27 years, democratic institutions have been developing since electoral democracy and the rule of law returned to the nation.

Currently, the parties to the executive (there are two who claim the post) are negotiating.

Institutions, such as the electoral tribunal and presidential candidates, are continuing with forthcoming elections.

The attorney general is investigating cases involving officers of the armed forces and deposed president Manuel Zelaya and his cabinet.

The courts are hearing cases as they arise.

Congress followed the process for presidential succession when Zelaya had, ostensibly, ceded power through his actions.

Recently, congress denounced and demanded a reversal of a presidential decree on the part of Roberto Micheletti, declaring a state of emergency restricting civil liberties.

In other words, things have not rapidly deteriorated in Honduras in the recent months in response to any single development. This is testament to the nation’s democracy.

To understand what happened on June 28th, and since then, it is essential to be familiar with events leading up to that iconic day when former president Zelaya’s image was beamed around the world, in his pjs, and, as we later learned, with 30 government credit cards tucked into his back pocket.

Earlier this year, Zelaya undertook to establish a constituent assembly to rewrite the 27-year-old constitution.

Instead of going through Congress, as provided for in the constitution, on March 25th he established a “referendum,” by presidential decree.

He never bothered to explain to Hondurans what needed fixing in the constitution - he was simply asking for a blank cheque to strike a constituent assembly to do whatever they saw fit with the country’s foundations.

But, the Honduran constitution prevents such action on the part of a single authority. And the responsible institutions exercised that power.

The independent electoral tribunal - the agency responsible for plebiscites and referenda according to the constitution - ruled the approach violated the rules for consultation.

The Supreme Court upheld the electoral tribunal’s ruling.

Zelaya re-dubbed the initiative a “poll” and continued his action, in violation of the court injunction against advertising and conducting the “poll.”

Again, the Supreme Court ruled his activities against the law.

Senior civil servants balked at being illegally withdrawn from their duties to carry out the illegal poll. Zelaya turned to the armed forces.

The head of the armed forces agreed to deploy the army to conduct the “poll” as soon as the initiative conformed to the law.

Did Zelaya go to congress as set out in the constitution? No. He fired the head of the armed forces.

Zelaya persisted, and, on June 25th, signed a decree declaring that the “poll” would be binding.

Then he led a group of his supporters to storm air force facilities to seize the “polling ballots.”

On June 26th, the Supreme Court issued an order for his arrest for violating the constitution and various other charges.

The Supreme Court, as per the constitution, ordered the armed forces to carry out the arrest warrant.

Legally, arrest warrants for certain political officials are to be directed by the courts and carried out by the armed forces. Since June 28th, Zelaya has been charged with fraud, corruption and abuse of authority.

On June 28th, officers of the armed forces, instead of taking Zelaya into custody and before the courts as they were legally bound, flew him to Costa Rica.

This action appears to violate both the court order and individual rights of Zelaya. The attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into the actions of the officers.

Also, according to the terms for constitutional succession, congress installed Micheletti, its president, as national president.

It is worth noting that the Honduran constitution contains no provisions for impeachment. Any illegal activity on the part of political officers are the responsibility of the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen whether or not Zelaya has his day in court, including a full and fair defense.

A reckoning of the actions of congress is outstanding to determine whether or not Zelaya was due a hearing before the courts before he could be deemed to have ceded power, triggering procedures for constitutional succession.

At the time of his exile, the executive had still failed to table a budget. Zelaya had stopped using the prescribed mechanisms for legislative development via Congress and was making law by presidential decree, stripping Congress of its constitutional authority.

Many consultative legislative initiatives, which had been built following broad participation by civil society were the victims of this strategy.

Throughout, Zelaya practised a divisive rhetoric, characterizing his critics as “elitists and oligarchs” instead of building political consensus.

Earlier this year, the attorney general opened investigations into allegations by several senior civil servants, members of Congress and members of the press that they have been subject to intimidation and death threats originating in the executive offices of Zelaya.

Zelaya’s policies can be described as erratic and irrational. He was prepared to dispense with the law, legislators and those pesky bureaucrats who sought to ground their actions in law and who refused to subject their staff and the wider society to bribery and intimidation.

Following Zelaya’s departure, Honduran society appears to be holding the government to account, demanding reversals of any activities that might undermine the electoral process. This reveals the plurality of Honduras society and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Let’s hope these hold while the executive authority gets sorted out, hopefully through elections on November 29th, and that those who broke the law are brought to justice.

Next week, the response of the international community, including Canada’s and that of the Organization of American States.

Cristina Pekarik was a resident and citizen of Honduras for 20 years. She holds an undergraduate degree with concentrations in political studies and economics and pursued graduate studies in creative writing. This year, she spent six weeks in Honduras.