POLITICAL, SOCIAL and legal processes are intricately connected in the army coup which removed President Manuel Zelaya from power at the weekend in Honduras. The resulting political crisis has rapidly become a regional one galvanising radicals in support of the president against more conservative leaders and suspected United States interference.
Mr Zelaya, a landowner from the country’s traditional social elite, came to power in 2006 on a relatively conservative programme. But he gradually became more radical as he encountered the many problems of poverty and underdevelopment facing Honduras, was influenced by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and other Latin American radicals and became more critical of US policy under president George Bush. This broadened his popular appeal, made his rhetoric more populist but also heightened suspicions among established power-holders that he wants to change the state’s constitutional structure which limits him to just one four-year term.
Their fears were confirmed by his proposal to hold an unofficial poll last Sunday to gauge public support for a referendum next November to permit him stand a second time. His dismissal of the army chief General Romeo Vasquez last week for refusing to co-operate with the poll was overturned by the supreme court which then told the army to remove the president for not reinstating him. On this basis the court insists it acted to defend the rule of law. The political establishment concurs, swearing in Roberto Micheletti, the head of the Honduran Congress strictly as an interim president pending another election next November for a new four -year term.
The wave of protests and objections to these events is also based on the need to reinstate democracy and the rule of law. There is a conflict of rights at stake. Which one should have precedence? – defending the existing single four-year term or allowing an existing president to sound out voters’ opinions on making a constitutional amendment so that he can seek a second one?
The issue is not confined to Honduras, but has also been highly contentious in Venezuela and Bolivia, where both Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have succeeded in extending their periods in office by changing the electoral laws. Radical leaders need more than one term to deliver on their programmes, but Latin American conservatives have sought to limit such change by restricting presidents to one term in office.