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Politics

Zelaya’s Game

22 September 2009

Zelaya’s Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Let us suppose that Manuel Zelaya, the ousted former president of Honduras, is an intelligent man with a good understanding of how politics works. Then the question is: what is his game? Because he started all this.

He was removed from office three months ago in circumstances of doubtful legality. Both the Supreme Court and the Congress had demanded his removal for “repeated violations of the constitution and the law,” but the way it was done – woken up by soldiers and hustled out of the country by plane – smelled more like an old-fashioned military coup.

A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti, the speaker of Congress, was sworn in as interim president, and everybody promised that normal democratic service would be fully restored after the elections due on 29 November. But every non-Honduran with access to a microphone took up Zelaya’s cause, from the Organisation of American States to the US State Department, and he emerged as a fully-fledged democratic martyr.

The left-wing leaders who have proliferated across Latin America in recent years were particularly supportive of Zelaya. Despite Brazilian president Luiz Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva’s firm denials, the suspicion lingers that Zelaya’s sudden re-appearance inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on Monday did not come as a complete surprise to the Brazilians.

Zelaya says he hiked in from the border, dodging border guards and military checkpoints, and that is probably true. But he must have had a plan for what he would do when he reached the Honduran capital to avoid arrest (his opponents have brought corruption charges against him), and those plans probably involved the Brazilian embassy from the start.

Now he is holed up there, surrounded by the Honduran army. It’s the perfect scene for a media watch that puts enormous pressure on Zelaya’s opponents to make concessions – or alternatively, the ideal location for a massacre of his supporters by trigger-happy soldiers, in which case popular opinion shifts to Zelaya’s side and he returns triumphantly to power.

Or at least, that is probably his plan. Am I being too cynical? Okay, let’s consider the evidence.

Manuel Zelaya was in the closet before he became president. He secured the nomination of the Liberal Party, a slightly left-of-centre party which has traditionally alternated in power with the right-wing National Party, and he narrowly won the presidency in the 2006 election. But it was only after he was safely in the presidential mansion that he dropped the mask and started moving Honduras sharply left.

He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1962, and signed up for Petrocaribe, the agreement by which oil-rich Venezuela sells oil to poorer countries in the region at a reduced price. He promised to join Alba, the Venezuelan-backed alternative to the free trade agreements backed by the United States. He even refused to accept an American ambassador for a time.

But he did not achieve much in practice for the Honduran poor, and he failed to build mass support for his policies. Opinion polls this year put his popular approval at only 25 percent.

Moreover, he was running out of time, since the Honduran 0Aconstitution only allows presidents one term in office and his term ended this year. So he did something peculiar: he announced that there would be a non-binding referendum on creating a constituent assembly to change the constitution and allow presidents a second term.

It was peculiar because he had no legal right to hold such a referendum, nor does the Honduran constitution allow a constituent assembly to be elected for such a purpose. Even if the illegality of the process was ignored, there was no chance that it could all happen in time to let him run for a second term in the November election. In any case, his own party would refuse to re-nominate him. So what was his game?

Zelaya’s only chance of holding on to power was to create a crisis that would sweep all of those considerations aside. He pressed ahead with his plans for a referendum last June even after the Supreme Court declared it illegal. When the army refused to assist in the referendum, he fired the commander-in-chief. So the Congressional and judicial authorities moved against him, although they would have been wiser just to wait him out.

Zelaya may not have foreseen the precise manner of his removal from office, but he was clearly seeking a confrontation that would destabilise the existing constitutional order. It was his only chance of staying in power.

He’s halfway there. His dramatic return to the country has created semi-siege conditions in the capital, and it’s unlikely that the November elections can go ahead in the circumstances. That already improves his prospects, because it drives the country beyond the usual constitutional procedures.

Zelaya has already painted himself as the democratically elected victim of a military coup, and as such he enjoys unprecedented foreign support. If his domestic opponents are stupid enough to use force, he could actually win. Judging by their past performance, they may be that stupid.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Zelaya…start”); and (“He restored…time”)