Governance and Democratic Politics in Honduras

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On December 8, 2009, the Latin American Program hosted a public forum "Governance and Democratic Politics in Honduras." The event sought to examine the status of democratic governance in Honduras in light of the June 28 coup d'état, November presidential elections, and prospects for reconciliation in the post-electoral period. The meeting was hosted by José Raúl Perales, Senior Program Associate in LAP, and featured presentations by Amb. Craig Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, former Honduran Ambassador to the United States Norman García, and Leticia Salomón.

In her assessment of the events unleashing the political crisis in Honduras, Leticia Salomón, Director of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras (CEDOH), argued that the removal of President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009, constituted a coup d'état that interrupted the Honduran democratic process begun in 1982. Honduras has no constitutional provision defining presidential succession and the Constitution does not grant Congress the authority to remove a president.

Salomón claimed that the coup was an expression of private political and business interests, and made a mockery of the public's will as expressed in the election of President Zelaya to a four-year term. The coup was carried out and guaranteed by the military and police, and was defended and manipulated by the media and the church.

In the aftermath of these events, Honduran citizens have been increasingly vulnerable and have not received the protection of the institutions of justice. The security forces operate with impunity and there is greater political and partisan control of state institutions. As a result, Salomón explained that governance has been weakened, and the legitimacy of institutions and political parties is increasingly questioned. Concurrently, there has been a resurgence of pluralistic and ideological social movements.

Abstention was the "victor" in the November presidential elections despite pressure from the business and religious communities and the expensive media campaign by the government to encourage voter participation. Salomón observed a strong counter reaction from social movements and individuals against the electoral process. In her view President-elect Lobo is a weak figure because of questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process and his dependence on the military and pro-coup business and religious leaders on election day. In other words, Honduras experienced a legal election in a context of illegality.

Salomón laid out the complexities of Honduras' political scenario, in which governance will be more difficult and unstable, with real prospects for a conservative, intolerant, and repressive future. The government is highly suspicious of non-violent democratic opposition social movements. Political parties are weakened. The business community has the capacity to veto any government action. Conservative religious interests will have a major influence on the new government. The media will be unified in its support for governing authorities, and will not play its role of questioning authority. The authorities will utilize old ghosts – communism, terrorism, Chávez – to justify repression and gain favor with conservative international forces. Increased rejection of the National Assembly is to be expected because of the role it played before, during, and after the coup. Society will fear the loss of autonomy for its authorities who will in turn fear their actions may lead to another coup.

To assure good governance in Honduras, Salomón recommended a number of steps. Those involved in the coup and in human rights violations must be punished. The role of the military and police must be reexamined to ensure they no longer perform political functions. The Congress must not exercise control over institutions of the state, and the structure and make-up of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal must be reformed, along with political parties. The secular character of the state must be reestablished. Control of the media must be decentralized and new independent media created. A democratic citizenry and democratic values must be promoted, and a National Constituent Assembly called to redefine the relationship between the state, civil society, and political parties.

Norman García, former Honduran Ambassador to the United States, described the coup d'état, presidential succession, and the elections as water under the bridge. He preferred to look forward and talk about prospects for democratic governance in Honduras.

In his view, governance can be a misunderstood concept. Governance is what governments do—the kinetic exercise of managing power and policy. Politics provide a means by which governance is done. According to the World Bank, which has studied governance extensively, including in Honduras, governance is the exercise of political authority and the use of institutional resources to manage society and its affairs. It is the traditions and institutions by which authority is exercised.

García went on to dispel a few myths about Honduras. It is neither the poorest nor the most unequal country in the hemisphere. Furthermore, its political party system is highly institutionalized.

That said, Honduras is a poor, developing country, and growth with equity and development must be a priority for the next government. In this context, governance matters because there is a link between governance and higher economic growth. Governance should be a priority for the next government. This means improving the quality of democracy by strengthening checks and balances and increasing civil society participation. Governance will improve not by redistributing powers amongst the branches of government but by shifting some of those powers to civil society.

García argued that this process had already begun as part of the constitutional reforms of late 2001 that gave civil society a role in nominating candidates to the Supreme Court. He indicated that these efforts must be expanded to include other areas of government, such as nominations to the presidency of the Central Bank, and creating an office to handle access to information requests as well as a civil service commission that would appoint judges and assume some of the court's administrative duties. A high level civil society commission could also analyze the performance of the national legislature based on the transparency of its sessions, budget, the evaluation of members, and the elimination of special prerogatives for legislators.

García acknowledged this is not an easy process, as those who hold power do not give it up easily. Nevertheless, Honduras already has experience with this kind of reform. It was the only country in the hemisphere to eliminate legislative immunity, as President Ricardo Maduro did after his election in 2001. A new constitution was not needed to implement these reforms. The current constitution of 1982 has proven to be dynamic and easily amended, with 20 amendments in 27 years. The only provisions that cannot be amended are those that forbid reelection or a change in presidential terms. García explained that there are good historical reasons for those provisions to remain in place. He argued that they have led to stability and served to avoid the civil wars experienced by Honduras' neighbors.

What are the prospects for change? García argued that change will not come about unless civil society and the international community press for it. Honduras has changed before, so there is every reason to believe that it can work to improve governance again.

Ambassador Craig Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, explained that on June 28, 2010, the United States issued one of the earliest condemnations of the coup and has maintained a strong and principled approach to developments in Honduras. The United States supported the OAS suspension of Honduras on July 4th. Yet from the beginning, the United States sought to match its principles with the search for a pragmatic way forward, by working with other countries in the region, especially those in Central America. President Obama said the United States needed to work cooperatively with the region and with Honduras to address the crisis in a pragmatic way. At the same time, the United States did not hesitate to intervene with the Honduran authorities when asked to by the Brazilians, and spoke very vocally about human rights abuses under the de facto authorities.

Over time, Honduran initiatives became central. The Guaymuras national dialogue became increasingly important and eventually lead to the formulation of the Tegucigalpa-San José accord. Restitution of President Zelaya (known as Point 5) became the most difficult provision.

Ambassador Kelly argued that the accord is very popular among Hondurans of all political stripes and includes elements that are highly relevant to resolving the current political crisis. For example, establishing a truth commission will be helpful as it was in instances of political polarization and crisis such as South Africa, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These and other elements in the accord were embraced even if the accord itself was not perfectly implemented.

Formation of national unity government after October 30, 2009, became the first stumbling block in the implementation of the accord, according to Kelly. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela has been very clear that national elections were going to be an important part of the process moving forward, without giving up on a principled position with respect to the coup. The elections have to be seen as part of a package and of a broader process.

Acknowledging arguments regarding electoral abstention, Ambassador Kelly observed that historically, participation rates have been going down in Honduras, from roughly 70 percent to less than 50 percent of the electorate. Differences between official reports (claiming 62 percent of participation) and those of a U.S. supported non-governmental organization (48 percent) probably reflect differences over who is being counted. For instance, official reports did not take into account the roughly 15 percent of Hondurans living abroad who voted, which the NGO calculations did. Voter participation abroad was very low because Honduran embassies followed President Zelaya's call to boycott the elections.

The conclusion of most international observers was that the election was legitimate and participation was widespread. Ambassador Kelly explained that the election was a necessary step forward that allows Hondurans to speak for themselves, but it is not sufficient to ensure reconciliation. President-elect Lobo has spoken of the need to start a national dialogue. He is committed to the implementation of the remaining elements of the San José accords, including formation of a truth commission.

One of the key challenges in the future is for Honduras to achieve more inclusive prosperity. Some countries have lowered the poverty rate but there are still over 100 million Latin Americans living in poverty. Ambassador Kelly concluded that globalization must work more effectively for those who are poor and marginalized. Initiatives such as the U.S.–sponsored Pathways to Prosperity are important for the implementation of all trade agreements and making sure that the benefits of free trade reach individual citizens.

Barry Jackson observed the election as part of an International Republican Institute delegation and is also a member of the Wilson Center's Board of Directors. He said that Hondurans were excited about the election and open to the presence of international observers. While there are large differences of opinion in the country about what happened on June 28, 2009, there was broad agreement that the elections were an important part of the way forward. Jackson described the level of transparency and accountability in the elections as something he wished elections in the United States would have. Claiming it would be hard to find any fraud in the Honduran electoral system, Jackson explained improvements in the system that made these elections so much superior to those in the past.

With respect to governance, Jackson argued that Honduran authorities understood the ways in which vagueness in national law and the constitution had led to the current political crisis, and thus showed a desire to address the lack of clarity. They also talked of the need to ensure greater equality between the branches of government, and of the dangers associated with the concentration of power in the executive branch.

Hondurans showed general disdain and contempt for the Organization of American States (OAS) because of a perceived lack of balance in how the institution approached the crisis, Jackson reported. Hondurans hope the OAS and its member states will look inwardly at the OAS and discover how they might reform its structure and governance to better deal with similar situations arising in the future.

Jackson concluded by hoping that international organizations and bureaucracies do not try to perpetuate the Honduran crisis in order to keep themselves busy and occupied. The Honduran people are clearly ready to move on and the international community should do the same. He also noted that while electoral observers expected to see violence and human rights abuses in Honduras, in fact they saw none.

In response to the panelists, Lineu Pupo De Paula, Alternative Representative of Brazil to the OAS, claimed the San José-Tegucigalpa accord was a bad agreement for Zelaya from the outset because it did not include a date for the Honduran Congress to act. De Paula, who spent forty-five days with President Zelaya in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, questioned why the United States supported an agreement without such a date. Ambassador Kelly responded that the accord was negotiated in a polarized environment and negotiators went as far as they could. If either side had insisted on a specific date for Congress to vote on the restitution of Zelaya, the accord would not have been signed. Ambassador Kelly contended that Article 5 of the agreement was an effort to come up with a procedure to deal with the lack of an impeachment article in the constitution. Honduras did, in fact, implement article 5, on December 2, 2009. He concluded that the accord was not a bad one; rather, it was the best political negotiators could agree to.