Honduras: Can you have a democratic coup?

I’d like to complicate the way that we’re talking about what is democratic and what’s a coup. So far, one side has been saying that if the Honduran military gets rid of the president, it’s bad, it’s undemocratic and it’s a coup. The other says that if the military is doing the right thing, it isn’t a coup.

Instead of seeing this as either/or, I’d prefer to think in terms of a spectrum of legitimacy that has a gray center in between the white pole of democracy and the black side of coups. In principle, there is some point at which any democratic military has an obligation to defend the constitutional order from illegal threats. The real question is whether Honduras reached that point, or whether the military acted prematurely.

Among American commentators (at least that I’ve read), there is a consensus that President Manuel Zelaya was openly threatening the constitutional order of Honduras by defying the supreme court and holding a referendum the court had declared illegal.

Yet I still find it very disturbing that the crisis had to be resolved by the Honduran military, even if it was acting on the orders of the court. The absence of other law enforcement bodies capable of upholding the orders of the court is deeply problematic.

The WSJ reports,

The Obama administration and members of the Organization of American States had worked for weeks to try to avert any moves to overthrow President Zelaya, said senior U.S. officials. Washington’s ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, sought to facilitate a dialogue between the president’s office, the Honduran parliament and the military.

That was certainly the right approach. It would have been better for everyone involved if this crisis were resolved without camouflage uniforms on the street.

The behavior of the military since its removal of Pres. Zelaya suggests that it is sincerely interested in upholding the democratic order. That does not necessarily justify the removal, however.

The behavior of Pres. Zelaya before his removal from power suggests that he has a deeply flawed view of democracy, one that is influenced by the authoritarian ways of Hugo Chavez and his allies in the hemisphere. That, however, does not justify the removal either.

Once the military has left the barracks, the potential exists for the situation to spin out of control, regardless of the good intentions of everyone involved. Without knowing more about Honduran politics, I cannot say whether the military demonstrated sufficient patience. My sense is that Pres. Zelaya’s behavior represented an extremely serious threat to Honduran democracy, yet there may have been a safer way to remove him from power.

Moving forward, I hope that the US, the OAS and the new Honduran government work toward a resolution that is legal, democratic and acceptable to a strong majority of Honduran citizens.



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