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Supreme Court

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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”)

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

29 June 2009

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

By Gwynne Dyer

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has declared that any attack on his country’s embassy in Honduras will lead to war between the two nations, and I can’t help wishing that the Hondurans would call his bluff. The Venezeluan blowhard is getting tiresome.

In the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, thirty years ago, Clint Eastwood achieved immortality with a single line. Pointing a very large pistol at an evil-doer (as George W. Bush might have put it), he addresses the miscreant, who is thinking about reaching for his own gun, as follows: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Hugo Chavez is more a well-meaning idiot than an evil-doer, but the question is the same: will he really go for his gun? The answer is no. He’s not a complete idiot, and his threats to attack other Latin American countries whose behaviour offends him (the most recent was Colombia, last year) always fade away after a while.

What provoked Chavez’s threat was the removal of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had become Chavez’s close ally. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military, bundled into a plane and flown to Costa Rica on 28 June.

Elected to a single term as president in 2006, Zelaya astonished friend and foe alike by turning out to be not the centre-right, business-friendly politician he had seemed. Instead, he began moving steadily to the left in his domestic policies, and linked Honduras diplomatically with the other socialist governments in Latin America.

There is no doubt that he caused deep annoyance to the conservative elite who have traditionally dominated Honduran affairs, but they made no move to overthrow him. Why bother? The constitution limits Honduran presidents to one four-year term in office, and Zelaya’s term comes to an end next January.

No other leftist candidate was likely to win the presidential election that is due in November: recent opinion polls suggested that Zelaya’s support nationally is down to around 30 percent. Even Zelaya’s own party was unlikely to nominate another leftist as his successor, and many of its members no longer supported him. So all the major political forces were content to wait for the clock to run out on him — until he started trying to change the constitution.

Zelaya’s bright idea was to end the one-term limit so he could run for president again himself. It’s exactly the same tactic that Chavez has used in Venezuela to prolong his rule indefinitely (he now talks about being in power until 2030), and Zelaya believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could make it work for him in Honduras. So he set about organising a referendum on the subject. It was scheduled for last Sunday.

Alas, the president of Honduras does not have the right to organize a referendum all by himself, and the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to stop. Congress also condemned the manoeuvre, but Zelaya plowed ahead regardless. When the army, obedient to the Supreme Court’s orders, refused to help Zelaya run the referendum, he fired the army’s commanding general and got his own party activists to distribute the ballot boxes.

At that point, Congress voted to remove Zelaya because of his “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions,” and the Supreme Court ordered the army to intervene and arrest the president. It was a mistake to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica, as that made it look like a traditional Central American coup, but apart from that everything was done within the law.

The speaker of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who has taken over until the November elections, insists that he has become interim president “as the result of an absolutely legal transition process.” Chavez and his Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Cuban allies claim it’s a military coup, and insist that the United States is behind it.

Washington, which wasn’t paying much attention until last Sunday, has been bounced into backing Zelaya too, as has the Organisation of American States, whose secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has promised to accompany Zelaya in a grand return to Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the events in Honduras as a coup, and for all we know she might accompany Zelaya too.

If Chavez decided to go along too, they would have enough people for a game of celebrity bridge, but all this posturing won’t change anything. It might be different if the next Honduran election were years away and there was time for diplomatic and economic pressures to wear the legitimate Honduran authorities down, but it’s only five months until the 29th of November.

So long as that election is conducted properly, other countries will have no grounds to reject its outcome — and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from running again. End of story.

Unless Chavez actually attacks Honduras, that is, but it is a long way from Venezuela and Chavez’s forces are not really equipped or trained for amphibious assaults or long-range air-drops. You can almost hear the Honduran soldiers muttering “Go ahead, make my day.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“In the first…for awhile”)

The New Consensus in Pakistan

17 March 2009

The New Consensus in Pakistan

By Gwynne Dyer

The dancing in the streets in Pakistan after the latest political crisis ended may have been overdone, but the relief was genuine. Americans should be dancing in the streets, too, because what has happened in Pakistan will probably force the United States to abandon its foolish anti-Pashtun war in Afghanistan before we get much older. But since the Obama administration doesn’t yet realise that it should stop that war, there were no celebrations in Washington.

It was pressure from Washington, as well as from the Pakistani army, that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to back down. Washington did that to save Zardari from his own folly, for it still wants his loyal support in its war in Afghanistan, but he hasn’t been saved for long.

Zardari’s sole claim to fame is that he married Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and hereditary leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). After she was assassinated in December, 2007, he inherited the party leadership, became prime minister on a sympathy vote in the ensuing election, and promoted himself to president in September.

Zardari’s reputation for corruption is unparallelled, and his political skills are minimal. Both those aspects of his character featured prominently in the recent crisis, which centred on Zardari’s refusal to re-appoint former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, dismissed by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Chaudhry’s determination to enforce the law despite the Musharraf regime’s corruption and contempt for the constitution became a rallying point for civilians demanding a return to democracy. His return to the Supreme Court was one of the founding principles of the coalition between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N) that took control when Musharraf finally surrendered power — but it didn’t happen.

Zardari simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid that once Chaudhry was back at the Supreme Court, he would cancel the amnesty that had let Benazir Bhutto and him return from exile in 2007. He may have been right, since the amnesty (on various corruption charges) was part of a deal in which the United States was trying to prop up its favourite Pakistani general, Musharraf, with a pro-American civilian government led by Benazir.

It might have worked if she had lived, but she didn’t. Zardari took over the PPP, Musharraf was finally forced out — and then the coalition between the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML–N foundered last May over Zardari’s refusal to reappoint Chief Justice Chaudhry.

Just business as usual in Pakistani politics, but then the country’s lawyers started staging daily demonstrations on Chaudhry’s behalf. Zardari really overstepped the bounds last month when he got the tame Supreme Court to rule that neither Nawaz Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, could hold elective office. He placed Punjab under central government rule, briefly closed down two independent TV stations, and alienated just about everybody.

The protests got bigger and bigger, the army and the United States told him to back down, and eventually he did. Chaudhry is back as the head of the Supreme Court, and the reins of government will probably pass to Nawaz Sharif within a year. So what?

It’s good that Pakistanis have chosen democracy and the rule of law, even knowing how badly they have been deceived and disappointed by their politicians in the past. But there is something bigger going on here.

A conservative, nationalist consensus is emerging that promises to transform Pakistani politics — and to reject the country’s role as America’s obedient ally in the “war on terror.”

Almost nobody in Washington understands that the United States is at war with the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Taliban are an almost exclusively Pashtun organisation, and ALL the Pashtun-majority provinces in Afghanistan are in revolt against the foreign occupation, while all of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-majority provinces are at peace.

The US allied itself with the other minorities in order to drive the Taliban from power in 2001, but that meant driving the Pashtuns from power, and they are fighting to regain their share.

Every Pakistani understands this, because most of the world’s Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan’s Pashtuns have been radicalised by the war against their brothers in Afghanistan, to the point where Taliban values now dominate in the western fifth of Pakistan as well. Music has been silenced, barbers no longer dare to shave men’s beards, and 140 girls’ schools have been blown up or burned down.

Taliban-style terrorist attacks in the rest of Pakistan are now an almost daily event, and lurking somewhere just below the horizon is the possibility of a unified, Islamist-ruled Pashtun state that would destroy the unity of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistanis will not let that happen, so the country’s acquiescence in the US “war on terror” under both Musharraf and Zardari, which has even extended in the past two years to tacit permission for American Predator drones to kill people in the Pashtun parts of Pakistan, is coming to an end. Without Pakistan’s support, the Western war in Afghanistan will have to stop — and high time, too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It might…everybody”)

Civil Liberties: The Turn of the Tide

12 June 2008

Civil Liberties: The Turn of the Tide

By Gwynne Dyer

Two hundred and seventy people convicted of no crime languish in Guantanamo, and the British parliament has just voted to extend detention without trial to forty-two days. In both the United States and Britain, governments that attack civil liberties in the name of security still rule. But in the past week the tide has turned in both countries.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled for the third time in four years that the people detained in Guantanamo can challenge their imprisonment in US civilian courts. When the Court made the same ruling in 2004 and 2006, an obedient Congress passed legislation overruling it, but that will not happen this time.

The Supreme Court judges have ruled once again that the ancient rule of habeas corpus, the right of every prisoner to be brought before a court where the state must give a legal justification for his detention, cannot be thrust aside on the pretext that the suspect is a foreigner, or a terrorist, or an “illegal combatant.” The government still has to convince a judge that it has the evidence to justify the charge, and then bring the accused to trial.

With Democratic majorities almost certain in both houses of Congress after the November elections, and both presidential candidates committed to shutting Guantanamo, this time the Supreme Court’s ruling will stick. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “The laws and constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.”

The rule of law is returning in the United States after years of abuse. In Britain, it is still under attack, but the fight back has started in earnest. After Prime Minister Gordon Brown forced through the 42-day detention law on Wednesday despite the resistance of both major opposition parties and 36 rebels from his own Labour Party, something unprecedented happened.

David Davis, the Conservative MP who serves as shadow home secretary (the opposition spokesman on domestic affairs), resigned his seat the following day. He declared that he would run for re-election on a platform of opposition to the “monstrosity” of 42-day detention and to the “government’s slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms.”

The Great British Public, it must be admitted, is not very interested in fundamental British freedoms. As Gordon Brown pointed out in defence of his law, a majority of the public supports 42-day detention.

Indeed, a majority of the British public, given the right lead by the gutter press, would probably also support 90-day detention, waterboarding of suspects, 180-day detention, torture of their relatives, 360-day detention, and summary execution of detainees. Provided they were Muslim, of course.

But democratic countries have laws and constitutions precisely to fend off this kind of ignorant populism. David Davis is acting in defence of habeas corpus, and when the voters of his constituency are forced to confront the issue of human rights squarely they will probably vindicate him.

Former prime minister Tony Blair began the attack on civil liberties even before 9/11. British citizens, who could previously be held by the police for only two days before being charged or released, found that period raised to seven days by the Terrorism Act of 2000, and to fourteen days by the Criminal Justice Act of 2003.

A significant minority of his own party rebelled when Blair tried to extend it again to ninety days in 2005, and after much haggling it was fixed at 28 days — already the longest period of pre-charge detention in the democratic world. So what possessed Gordon Brown to want to lengthen it yet again, given that there had been no request from the security services and no recent terrorist atrocity?

Political expediency, of course. Brown’s unchallenged succession to Blair as prime minister is already seen as Labour’s great mistake, and it is almost universally assumed that the Conservatives will win the next election in less than two years’ time. So Brown cast around for some symbolic gesture that would wrong-foot the Tories, and came up with 42 days: paint himself as tough on security, and force the Conservatives to choose between defending unpopular civil liberties or playing me-too.

Stupid. The Conservatives decided to oppose the legislation, although with some misgivings. (Indeed, David Davis’s spectacular action is partly intended to nail his own party to its commitment to kill the 42 days when it comes to power.) About fifty Labour MPs were initially prepared to vote against their own government, although various pressures reduced that to 36 for the final vote.

The law squeaked through last Wednesday by a majority of only nine votes — thanks to nine Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland who agreed to support Brown in return for large sums of money spent in that province. Brown is weakened by this vote, not strengthened, and the ugly law he has pushed through the House of Commons will almost certainly die in the House of Lords (as he knew all along — it was only done to make him look “tough on terror”).

In both of the countries where civil liberties were most grievously damaged by the “war on terror,” the tide is turning. About time, too.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The Great…him”)