Foreign Policy Blog features IRI Election Observer

When it comes to Honduras, it’s time to leave the Zelaya debacle in the past
By David J. Kramer

Last week was a very good week for the people of Honduras. On Sunday Nov. 29, Hondurans went to the polls to choose their next president in an election that passed the “free and fair” test of observers on the ground (myself included). Three days later on Dec. 2, Honduran legislators rejected a return to the past, defeating a motion to restore the ousted and disgraced leader, Manuel Zelaya, for the remaining two months of his term.
Hondurans are clearly looking to the future — the question is whether the international community, including the United States, will do the same.

Earlier this week the mood in Tegucigalpa, the capital, was celebratory. The sight of many young Hondurans participating in the political process bodes well for the country’s future. Despite exaggerated reports of widespread violence and bombings in the days leading up to election day, the voting went off peacefully, with few problems save for some late openings of polling stations and technical glitches for phoning in results to the central election commission. The campaign was not perfect, with short-term emergency measures that briefly limited political space, but these measures were lifted in enough time to allow for a lively competition for voters’ support.

The international group of observers with whom I worked heard few complaints before, during, and after the vote. On the contrary, many Hondurans voiced sincere appreciation for our willingness to monitor the election and satisfaction that their country was putting the Zelaya controversy in the past.

The Nov. 29 election was scheduled last year, long before the summer’s commotion involving Zelaya. Primary elections in November 2008 produced the two main party candidates, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo and Elvin Santos. Lobo, head of the National Party, won in a landslide by some 15 percent of the vote, a victory acknowledged by Santos, his main challenger from the Liberal Party. Zelaya is also from the Liberal Party, and the fact that Santos decided to participate in the election is a sign that even within his own party, Zelaya is a spent force.

Zelaya’s calls for Hondurans to stay away from the polls were largely ignored. And Honduran legislators put the final nail in his coffin when they upheld his June removal from office, carried out by the military upon orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, because Zelaya was engaging in unconstitutional efforts to extend his stay in power. Despite the legal basis for his removal (the military’s decision to deport him to Costa Rica could have been handled better), the international community, the Obama administration included, quickly condemned these developments and suspended assistance, calling for Zelaya’s return to power.

Whereas the majority of Hondurans saw the election as a proper way forward, the Organization of American States (OAS) and countries such as Brazil and Venezuela chose to boycott it out of allegiance to Zelaya. Recognizing the elections, they maintained, would legitimize what they deemed to have been a coup d’etat.

After condemning what it called “a coup” against Zelaya in the summer and trying to iron out a compromise agreement that would return him to office, the Obama administration eventually realized that the election would take place whether Washington approved or not. Accordingly, the State Department requested the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to assess the election process. At the same time, Department officials continued to call for Zelaya’s restoration so that he could finish out his term in office, but Honduras’s National Congress rebuffed the U.S. administration’s entreaties by voting against reinstating Zelaya.

The day after the election, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, in a rambling press briefing, refused to recognize the results of the elections and called for Zelaya to be returned to power. Appearing before the press again the day after the Honduran Congress rejected that possibility, Valenzuela voiced disappointment with the decision, but signaled that the United States was finally getting the message: Hondurans were looking forward, not to the recent past.

The United States and other countries, as well as the OAS, should lift their suspensions of assistance to Honduras, the poorest country in Central America, and recognize that the citizens of that country followed a democratic process in choosing a new president. The Honduran Congress also took its responsibility seriously in voting on whether to reinstate Zelaya. Those who boycotted the Nov. 29 election missed an impressive display of civic duty by Hondurans determined to exercise their democratic rights. Now, it is time the international community united behind the people of Honduras and their new leaders.

Editors’ Note: David J. Kramer headed the International Republican Institute’s election observer delegation to Honduras. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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