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Hondurans, Not Zelaya, Will Decide Their Future

Friday, October 30, 2009

A new proposal by the interim government represents a triumph for the Honduran people and their constitution.

After months of bickering among self-interested politicians and self-important foreign meddlers about the June 28 ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, late last night Zelaya accepted a proposal by the interim government under which the supreme court will decide whether the congress can review his removal from office.

Although it is quite doubtful that the court and congress—which approved of Zelaya’s removal in the first place—will return him to power, this formula clears away international sanctions and ensures recognition of November 29 elections in which 4.7 million voters will choose a new president and congress. This solution represents a triumph for the Honduran people and their constitution, and it recognizes that Honduras’ future is much more important than Zelaya’s fate.

The U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States (OAS) had painted themselves into a corner by suggesting that the international community would not observe or respect these elections unless Zelaya were restored to power. However, a key Democratic congressman—Representative Eliot Engel (D–New York), chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere—recently stepped up to state the obvious: the international community should support these elections as a logical solution to the political impasse.

Zelaya and the turmoil that he brought upon his country will be consigned to history by democratic elections.

Representative Engel noted in an October 21 statement that all of the presidential candidates (including a representative of Zelaya’s own party) had asked OAS to observe the elections. “I urge OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to grant this request,” Engel said, “so that an effective election monitoring effort can be put into place.” Engel’s leadership forced U.S. and OAS diplomats to back away from their absolutist position and recognize that the upcoming elections were more important than Zelaya’s return to power.

Engel is key, because he is the ranking Democrat responsible for regional issues. And he joined a chorus of experts who had embraced the elections. Ranking House Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim DeMint (R–South Carolina) returned from separate fact-finding trips to Honduras and called on the United States and others to back the elections. On October 15, moderate Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, “strongly” encouraged the OAS to heed the call of Honduran candidates for international observation, to “ensure that the election meets international standards for fairness and transparency.”

A diplomatic heavyweight, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, waded into the subject in a piece published in The Washington Post October 17. He called upon the United States to show leadership by changing its stance on the elections.

With a political agreement now in place, the international community must support and respect the November elections. Several facts are worth noting about the Honduran electoral process:

This formula clears away international sanctions and ensures recognition of November 29 elections.

•    The elections are prescribed by the Honduran constitution and they are conducted by an electoral tribunal that has complete independence from the president, congress, and courts. The tribunal’s members are chosen for their technical expertise and sound reputation. The elections are required under the constitution and were organized in May, before Zelaya’s ouster.

•    All of the six presidential candidates were chosen in primaries last year—including a member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party and, for the first time, an independent candidate. Candidates from across the political spectrum are waging an open and unfettered campaign right now, and all of them have asked that the international community observe and respect the process.

•    When the interim president issued a “state of siege” last month, the electoral tribunal denounced the decision immediately, and it was reversed. In July, the candidate of the Democratic Unification party (one of two who supports Zelaya), asked the tribunal to ensure that he could participate freely in the campaign and have access to press coverage; the tribunal intervened on his behalf with other candidates and the media.

A key Democratic congressman recently stepped up to state the obvious: the international community should support these elections as a logical solution to the political impasse.

•    The electoral tribunal will lead a network of 6,000 poll workers. Electoral officials are chosen by civil society organizations. Although the military will provide logistical support, the civilian representatives of the electoral tribunal have sole authority over the custody and counting of the ballots. Fourteen civil society organizations have complete access to oversee the entire process.

Members of the Honduran electoral tribunal met with U.S. officials in Washington last week to offer their personal assurances that they will ensure free and transparent elections. They asked several pro-democracy organizations for their assistance.

Despite misguided foreign pressure, Hondurans insisted that any settlement of the crisis must respect their constitution and sovereignty. Zelaya and the turmoil that he brought upon his country will be consigned to history by democratic elections, and the United States and the international community have no choice but to let the Honduran people decide their own future.

Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which helped organize a visit of Honduran leaders to Washington in July.

FURTHER READING: Noriega has also written on Zelaya’s ouster in “Overlooking Crimes Against a Constitution” and “Cuba Sí, Honduras No?” In “Slouching to Populism,” Noriega discusses how embattled democrats in Latin America read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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