Sunday's Elections Left As Risky Option in Honduras

As Hondurans go to the polls this Sunday, months of negotiations and years of diplomatic precedent hang in the balance. The Obama administration hopes that the presidential elections will end the political crisis in Honduras. The deep divisions in Honduran society and the firmness with which most Latin American leaders have rejected the de facto government and the elections, however, risk dashing the administration's hopes.

On June 28th, the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court voted to remove President Manuel Zelaya. This followed Zelaya's disregard of their rejection of a planned ballot to allow for a constituent assembly. Acting under Supreme Court order, in the early morning, soldiers rousted the President and placed him--still in his pajamas--on a plane to Costa Rica. Because the removal strayed from the Honduran constitution, the international community immediately condemned the act as a coup and called for Zelaya's restoration. But the de facto government, led by Roberto Micheletti, asserted that the removal was constitutional, while admitting that Zelaya's exile--not to mention lack of due process--was a "mistake."

The international community's position was virtually unanimous, demanding Zelaya's restoration before previously scheduled November elections. Subsequently, Micheletti dragged his feet, thwarting regional negotiators' efforts to resolve the impasse and ignoring economic and diplomatic sanctions by the U.S. and others.

Last month, under pressure to find some exit, U.S. negotiators traveled to Tegucigalpa, engineered an agreement, and declared victory. The U.S. left implementing the agreement to the Hondurans, however, and said that it would accept the elections as a critical step for Honduras's future--even before the agreement had been fulfilled.

Most leaders in the hemisphere do not share this view. They share the position of Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile and member of the agreement's Verification Commission that Micheletti broke the agreement and Zelaya must be restored. Now, Argentina and Brazil have denounced the elections as an attempt to legitimize the coup.

At the same time, conditions inside Honduras are troubling. The de facto government has routinely violated Honduran citizens' rights--repressing protesters, imposing curfews, censoring pro-Zelaya media, and suspending constitutional freedoms. In this tense climate, parties drastically cut back on campaign activity. Now, Zelaya and his supporters are promoting a boycott, threatening legal action, and pledging to mobilize supporters. And, with several recent unsolved explosions in the country, many voters remain afraid of election-day violence. Election officials themselves have declared that "the candidate to beat is abstentionism," as many voters may stay away from the polls in protest or out of fear. Furthermore, dozens of mayoral and congressional candidates have withdrawn from the elections in solidarity with Zelaya.

These international and domestic factors all suggest that the elections will not bring a quick resolution to this crisis. After Sunday, the Honduran people will likely continue to confront a deeply divided society and a crippled economy. Meanwhile, the Obama administration will likely remain at odds with Latin American countries with whom it had hoped to restore congenial relations after the Bush era.

But perhaps the greatest loser will be the hemispheric consensus to defend liberal democracy. In the last three decades, from Haiti to Peru, the region has effectively pushed back on coups and democratic transgressions. Allowing the Honduran coup to stand has eroded this hard-won consensus.

Looking forward, the diplomatic divisions emerging from the crisis will only weaken the international community's authority to hold accountable leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and the judicial and legislative systems that they control. It will also enable these leaders to decry the hypocrisy of their critics, who argue that elections are the solution in Honduras while denying their legitimacy in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Furthermore, by not allowing Zelaya to return in a limited form, the events over the last four months have converted Zelaya into an unlikely and undeserved democratic hero, allowing his defenders to ignore the threat he posed to Honduran democracy.

Fingers are crossed throughout the Americas for a speedy conclusion to the Honduran crisis. But Sunday's elections may not present the exit we all hope for. Instead, no matter how transparent they may be, Sunday's elections may mark a defeat for the hemisphere's ability to stand firm against coups, rein in overzealous presidents, and hold fast to a conception of liberal democracy on which we should all be able to agree.

Chris Sabatini
is the senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas/Americas Society and editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. Daniel Altschuler is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford.