In modern day, democracy is more than the norm, it’s the rule. Elections are the thermometer of legitimacy. But this weekend, this adage is being put to the test.
This Sunday, citizens from a pair of tiny Latin American countries hit the polls. But the results are set to have two completely different outcomes, regardless of the electoral winner.
In Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million rooted in a deep tradition of democracy, residents head back to the polls to vote in the second round of the presidential elections. The leftwing candidate for the incumbent Frente Amplio coalition, Jose “Pepe” Mujica won the first round last month with 48 percent of the vote, but failed to achieve the 50 percent necessary to avoid the runoff.
A Mujica win would mean another five years at the helm for the Frente Amplio coalition. Few in Uruguay can deny the success of the current Frente Amplio administration, with an approval rating of over 60 percent and social programs which have decreased poverty, and lifted Uruguay into steady economic growth despite the economic crisis.
Because of Mujica’s radical past—as a Tupamaro guerilla and a political prisoner—and extravagant persona (people either love him or hate him), it appears that Sunday’s elections will be a close race. Despite the potential outcome, few electoral surprises are expected. There is no fear of fraud. As usual, Uruguayans will calmly head to the polls; their thermoses and mates (South American green tea) in hand, and this tiny country between Argentina and Brazil will carry on its democratic course. Regardless if the individual voters are happy with the outcome, Uruguayans will trust that the democratic rules have roughly been respected, and regardless of who is elected, the people will continue to believe in the system.
Honduras is another issue.
Hondurans take to the polls on Sunday beneath a curtain of fear and a shadow of doubt. Underlining everything is the coup d’etat that knocked President Manuel Zelaya from power in late June, and the continued national and international condemnation of the illegal de facto government of Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya has now been holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa since September. Protests have raged in the streets for five months.
The Micheletti government has declared a state of emergency prior to the elections, emitting decrees restricting the freedom of press, deploying the armed forces to support the national police in guarding the poling places, and replacing the pseudo-independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal with the de facto Secretary of State to oversee all November 29th electoral activities.
Honduran social movements have vowed to boycott the elections. Progressive electoral candidates have pulled themselves from the rosters in protest the de facto government’s stubborn refusal to heed international law and step down. Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim said on Thursday that recognizing the election would be paramount to legitimizing the coup against Zelaya.
"A coup is not acceptable as a means for political change," said Amorim.
"On November 29, Honduran democracy will not be strengthened. On the contrary, it will be weakened because the elections will consolidate a new version of coup d’etats, one where the use of force coupled with weak institutions threaten the rule of law," said Viviana Kristicevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Rights (CEJIL) on Tuesday.
The elections threaten to set a dangerous precedent in a region of left-wing leaders, progressive policies and conservative oppositions with powerful ties (many to the United States).
The international community has unanimously condemned the June 28th coup against Manuel Zelaya, but the United States has conveniently walked the line between condemning the de facto government and supporting it. The U.S. called for dialogue but refused to completely cut aid, then lambasted Zelaya for attempting to enter his own country. Then recently, the U.S. State Department announced they would accept the results of this Sunday’s elections. Zelaya condemned the U.S. decision. International leaders say it is tantamount to legitimizing the June 28th coup.
For centuries, criminal regimes have attempted to legitimize themselves in the face of both national and international public opinion, carrying out pseudo-elections, but holding on either by force, or fear or corruption.
Elections are the international rule, but that doesn’t mean they can be used to legitimize an illegal regime. It is important to remember why Micheletti and his cohorts awoke President Manuel Zelaya by gunpoint in the early morning of June 28th, and threw him on a plane to Costa Rica. That day, Zelaya was planning to hold a non-binding referendum to ask the Honduran people if they wanted to carry out a constituent assembly to re-write the Honduran Constitution.
"Today’s proposed referendum was non-binding and merely consultative. Thus no one could argue that allowing it to go forward could cause irreparable harm," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research on the day of the coup. "There was no excuse for the Honduran military to intervene, regardless of the constitutional issues at stake."
Supporters of the coup said that Zelaya was attempting to change the constitution to eliminate term limits (unconstitutional in Honduras). Zelaya’s supporters said he was simply trying to put more power in the hands of the Honduran people.
Democracy is complex. It is a work in progress. It is an ongoing process. Elections are one form of democracy. The constituent assembly is a legitimate recourse that multiple Latin American countries (Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) have used over the last two decades in order to give their citizenry more active participation in the foundational laws which governs their lives, their community and their country.
Numerous experiences of local participatory democracy have sprouted up out of the new constitutions. Participatory Budgeting (PB) was implemented in Porto Alegre in 1989, the year after the founding of Brazil’s 1988 constitution. PB was then implemented across Brazil, and much of the planet. Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution is the cornerstone on which many of Venezuela’s social movements have based their struggle. It laid the foundation for the creation of now more than 30,000 communal councils, where community members can participate in decisions in their neighborhood and can receive resources directly from the national government for community projects.
In these countries, the constituent assembly was a means of breaking with a hierarchical, neo-liberal, or dictatorial past, where the citizenry had little active participation over their lives. It was a means of spreading the responsibility, a means of letting the people decide. Increasingly the conservative opposition has fought against the constituent assemblies, as they have seen their passage potentially affect their traditional interests. There is little doubt that this was at the heart of the June 28th coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
Elections work when they are built on participation, process and confidence in the independent systems, to ensure transparency and accountability. Electoral participation was a central component of the peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala that ended the country’s civil wars in the 1990s. But in order to be valid, they must be held by a legally-recognized government and they must be held legitimately—without force, fear or cohersion; independently monitored; and organized by an independent institution. None of this appears to be the case this weekend in Honduras.
On the other side of South America, Uruguayans know this story well. They lived beneath a brutal dictatorship from 1973-1985. They know what cohersion is, and they know what real elections are. Presidential candidate, Jose Mujica was repeatedly tortured during his14 years in prison during the country’s dictatorship. In Honduras, hundreds of human rights abuses by the de facto Micheletti regime have piled incessantly one of top of the next.
Regardless of this weekend’s winners in both Uruguay and Honduras, what matters is the democratic process.
Elections will never legitimize the illegitimate.
Michael Fox is a journalist, a reporter, and a documentary filmmaker based in South America. He is codirector of the 2008 documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas and coauthor of the upcoming book, Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroot.