// archives

Liberal Party

This tag is associated with 3 posts

Zelaya’s Game II

23 October 2009

Zelaya’s Game II

 By Gwynne Dyer

If you start from the assumption that the strategy of Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, is to destroy the existing constitutional order in the country, then you must admit that he is making good progress. Negotiations with the interim government that replaced him have broken down, and there is every likelihood that the elections scheduled for next month will not be recognised by the rest of the world. If that happens, he wins.

Of course, this is not the usual narrative of the Zelaya drama, in which he is portrayed as the innocent victim of a nefarious plot by evil right-wing forces. That narrative recognises that he was sailing under false colours when he won the presidential nomination of the Liberal Party four years ago, only revealing that he was far to the left of his party after he had won the election. But it does not consider what that meant for his time in office.

“The story so far” in standard media accounts acknowledges that Zelaya took the country’s foreign policy leftwards, reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba after 47 years and signing a treaty with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that yielded cut-price oil for Honduras. It only rarely mentions that he failed to build a strong base of popular support among the Honduran poor, since his own party in Congress disowned him and the Honduran presidency has little direct influence over economic affairs.

And Zelaya’s actual removal from power is generally treated as a classic Latin American coup, in which a reforming leader is overthrown by an army in the service of the rich whose power he threatens. Since the Honduran army obeys the Congress and the courts, both of which are very protective of the interests of the rich, there is a bit of truth in that. What’s missing is the fact that it was all done quite legally – and the probability that Zelaya was looking for a confrontation.

Consider Zelaya’s position last spring. He had made some dramatic gestures on the international front but had accomplished almost nothing domestically, and the polls put his popular support at around 25 percent. His presidential term was ending in less than a year, and his own party was unwilling to re-nominate him. In any case, the Honduran constitution does not permit presidents to seek a second term. His One Big Chance to change Honduran society had come and gone. What was he to do?

What he did, in fact, was to start talking about changing the constitution to remove the one-term limit. On the face of it that made no sense at all, since a) he still wouldn’t be re-nominated by the Liberal Party, and b) the constitution couldn’t possibly be changed fast enough to let him run for president again this November. Are we to assume that he had suddenly developed a selfless interest in constitutional law? Probably not.

We would be fairly safe in assuming that Zelaya is a clever man, and that his conservative opponents in the mainstream parties, the courts and the army, pickled in the arrogance that comes with long and unchallenged power, were not very alert. So when Zelaya started talking about changing the constitution, they leaped to the (utterly stupid) conclusion that he was hoping to win a second presidential term.

Ten seconds’ serious thought would have told them that his game had to be deeper than that, but they fell into his trap. All they really needed to do was wait him out. Congress could censure him, the courts would set aside any decrees he issued, and the army would refuse to assist in any referendum he tried to hold. You can’t change the Honduran constitution by a referendum anyway – and in six months Zelaya would be gone.

Instead, Congress voted almost unanimously to remove Zelaya from the presidency, the Supreme Court agreed, and the army was ordered to act. That may not have been the precise response that Zelaya was hoping to provoke, because it was even stupider than you would normally expect from those people, but it was certainly along the right lines, and he knew he could work with it.

By the middle of this year, Zelaya would have realised that his only hope of pursuing his radical political goals was to bring the entire constitutional order of Honduras into question. He couldn’t do that alone, but he might manage to fool his opponents into doing it themselves. And he did.

They expelled him in June but he slipped back into the country in September. For the past month he has been sheltering in the Brazilian embassy and negotiating as an equal with the authorities who removed him from power. Their best bet at this point would be to restore him to the presidency and let him serve out the remainder of his term, for whoever is elected in the November election will be much more to their taste, and Zelaya would be gone by January. But they are still stupid.

They have broken off talks with Zelaya, and the result will be that nobody outside the country will recognise the legitimacy of the November elections. The crisis will continue long past January, and every month the economic situation will become more desperate. It is not clear that Zelaya will ultimately emerge as the winner in this confrontation, but he has succeeded in creating the conditions in which he COULD win.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The story…confrontation”)

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.


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

Canada: The Dog Woke Up

23 November 2006

Canada: The Dog Woke Up

By Gwynne Dyer

“Michael Ignatieff strode back into Canada bearing gilt-edged promises that he had kept a close watch on our political evolution during his decades on foreign soil and that he would be appropriately sensitive to our sociopolitical nuances. He then, by stating a position on Quebec as a nation, proceeded to break our single most important political taboo. It is as if a papal candidate had suddenly barged into a Catholic church and set the altar ablaze.”

So ran the lead editorial of one of Canada’s two national newspapers, the National Post, on the day after the blaze spread to the roof. When Michael Ignatieff, a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore potentially a future prime minister, declared last June that he saw the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec as “a nation” within Canada, and was open to new negotiations to enshrine that concept in the constitution, he re-opened the wound that never really heals, and condemned the country to another constitutional crisis.

Last month, taking their lead from Ignatieff, the Quebec branch of the Liberal Party adopted a resolution calling for the party to recognise “the Quebec nation within Canada,” and to “officialise this historical and social reality.” Then the separatist Quebec party in the federal parliament, the Bloc Quebecois, seized on that to introduce a bill demanding “that this House recognise that Quebecers form a nation.”

The Bloc hoped the other parties would vote against the bill, thereby demonstrating their alleged hostility to French-speaking Quebecers and their aspirations, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper was too clever for them. On Wednesday, he introduced a resolution declaring that parliament “recognises that the Quebecois form a nation WITHIN A UNITED CANADA,” and all the parties flocked to support it — even the Bloc Quebecois.

In one swift move Harper won support for his Conservative Party in Quebec in the next election, and boosted the chances that Michael Ignatieff, the easiest candidate to beat, will win the leadership of the Liberal Party. However, he also raised the spectre of Quebec separatism from its shallow grave.

Harper’s Conservatives, of course, insist that they have done no such thing. His Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, in a performance that would have left Don Rumsfeld envious, denied that the motion had any legal consequences: “We are not at the point of a constitutional demand. Has anyone seen a constitutional demand in the works? No, we haven’t seen one. Is it our intention to have one? No, there is no intention to have one.”

But Andre Boisclair, leader of the Parti Quebecois which spearheads the separatist movement within Quebec, took a very different view. The motion to recognise that Quebecers form a nation “will give us a powerful tool for the international recognition of a future sovereign Quebec… I feel better equipped today to talk about sovereignty to Quebecers than I was before the motion.”

Since the “quiet revolution” of the 1960s delivered Quebec into the modern world politically, the issue of independence for Canada’s only French-majority province has never gone away for long. The separatist Parti Quebecois has been in power much of the time since then, and is favoured in the opinion polls to return to power in the next provincial election. Twice it has held referendums on independence, and twice it has failed to get a “yes” vote, but it has promised another when the circumstances are right.

In practice, “when the circumstances are right” has meant when francophone Quebecers are feeling alienated from English-speaking Canada. The first referendum on independence in 1980 was defeated 60-40, but after two failed attempts at constitutional reform the second referendum in 1995 came within a hair’s-breadth of saying “yes”. Canada has now almost certainly embarked, willy-nilly, on a third attempt at constitutional reform, regardless of how much the present government denies it. The sleeping dog has woken, and will have its day.

But a third attempt at finding a constitutional formula that will satisfy both nationalist Quebecois and the English-speaking majority in the other nine provinces is almost certainly doomed to failure for the same reasons as the first two: there is no such formula. So at the end of this road, very probably, lies a third referendum in a Quebec that is feeling rejected and alienated.

Prime Minister Harper bears a good deal of blame for this train-wreck with his too-clever resolution declaring the Quebecois to be a nation “within a united Canada,” but the true responsibility lies with Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian-born academic and journalist who had lived abroad for 27 consecutive years before he arrived in Canada from Harvard University last year to offer the Liberal Party and the country his leadership.

The lesson that most Canadians (including most French-Canadians) had gleaned from the long and gruelling ordeal of referenda and constitutional crises was that the country worked perfectly well in practice, but could not be made to work in theory — so stop obsessing about constitutional principles. But Ignatieff was absent for all that time, and he simply hadn’t grasped the lesson.

In the words of Ken Dryden, also at one point a Liberal leadership candidate, Ignatieff “bumped into a chair and woke the dog up.” But he will probably be long gone, back to Harvard or some other ivory tower, before the storm really hits Canada.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Harper’s…motion”)