The Sham Elections in Honduras

Why Obama shouldn't turn a blind eye to the undemocratic shenanigans in Tegucigalpa.


On Sunday, when Hondurans go to the polls to elect a new president, Barack Obama’s administration may be tempted to congratulate the winner, gradually resume normal diplomatic and economic relations with the successor government to the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, and thus enable the de facto government that drove him from office to erase the remaining stains of its coup d’état.

Yield not unto temptation. This election is taking place in a political environment contaminated by repression, violence, and fear. If the U.S. government recognizes the vote, it will grant the de facto regime led by former parliamentary head Roberto Micheletti a legitimacy it does not deserve; it will needlessly lengthen a crisis that is hurting Honduras, its people, and its prospects for real democracy; and it will harm the U.S. image in the region. Most importantly, there is an alternative to this "see no evil" strategy.

What has transpired in Honduras in recent weeks has eliminated the prospects for free and fair elections. Actions specifically aimed at suppressing political organizing for the election, including mass arrests, illegal detentions, and violence — documented by respected international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — have yet to be investigated or prosecuted by the Honduran attorney general’s office.

More than 50 candidates for public office, including several running for congressional and mayoral seats and one presidential candidate, have removed their names from the ballot in protest against the coup regime.

Lists of anti-coup activists have been compiled by local mayors and given to the military. The government’s telecommunications commission has continued to block pro-Zelaya media outlets, forcing them to play reruns of old cowboy movies rather than news critical of the coup regime.

All of this while the Micheletti government reinstated a state of siege last weekend and intimidated opponents by announcing that it has trained hundreds of Honduran lawyers to prosecute individuals participating in a boycott of Sunday’s vote. No matter the turnout, no matter the result, these are not conditions within which legitimate elections can take place.

Moreover, the coup and the campaign have made utterly clear that the constitutional framework in one of Latin America’s poorest countries may be insufficient for dealing with the vast array of social, political, and economic challenges facing Honduras — with or without a new, democratically elected president.

In a country where 70 percent live in poverty — in a system riven with corruption, as Transparency International recently made clear — it is not hard to understand why Zelaya’s calls for a constitutional assembly in June resonated deeply with Honduran society.

Although coup leaders and others question Zelaya’s method and motives, this crisis has revealed that many Hondurans still want a significant reform of their country’s Constitution. It was the United States’ own handpicked negotiator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who called the Honduran Constitution "the worst in the world." With neither any clause for impeachment nor any recourse for amendment, Arias had the document dead to rights. And it is easy to imagine the events of June repeating themselves if serious debate over constitutional reform does not continue once the facade of democracy is restored. Indeed, it is just this sort of national conversation that the majority of Hondurans still seem to desire. Just one month ago, 54 percent of Honduran respondents told a U.S. polling firm that a constitutional assembly would now be the best way for resolving the current crisis.

In the end, the Honduran people themselves will need to decide what, if any, changes they want to make to their Constitution, and whether any such changes can be made through a piecemeal reform process or whether a constitutional assembly to rewrite the document altogether will ultimately be necessary. For now, however, the United States should publicly support such a conversation, beyond Sunday’s vote. And most importantly, it should do its part to ensure an open political environment exists for doing so.

In other words, don’t bless these elections and walk away. Instead, Washington should maintain its suspension of government-to-government assistance and not recognize the newly elected regime until there is a full restoration of civil liberties and steps are taken to prosecute human rights abuses. Next, the Obama team should work with the Organization of American States and other democracies — the vast majority of which is reluctant to endorse these elections — to find a way to bring Honduras back into the international community. For starters, if the new government is to recover any semblance of legitimacy, it will need to ensure that adequate conditions exist for a broad and pluralistic debate and dialogue, including with respect to any constitutional issues. Moreover, such a dialogue should be seen as responding to the legitimate rights and concerns of Honduran citizens, rather than being branded as treason, as is customary for the coup government today.

Supporting this next process may be the only way for the United States to retain a trace of goodwill among many rightfully frustrated Hondurans — not to mention the rest of Latin America, disappointed that five months of hemispheric unity might end because of a hasty and ill-considered decision to recognize Sunday’s elections.

George Vickers is the director of international operations at the Open Society Institute.