The Military Still Has Veto Power in Honduras

(IPS) – The de facto veto power that the military exercised with the toppling of president Manuel Zelaya exactly one year ago today effectively blocks any possible political or electoral reforms, experts say.

That was made clear once again when the head of the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), David Matamoros, made an about-turn after saying the Court was studying the possibility of removing from the military the task of transporting and guarding the ballot boxes during elections.

Matamoros said earlier this month that the armed forces were given that role in the 1982 constitution because the country was heading towards democracy after years of dictatorship, and that “now we believe that it is no longer necessary, and, like in other countries, should fall within the jurisdiction of the TSE. For that reason it is now part of the reforms we are proposing.”

But the story changed a few days later. After a meeting between the TSE judges and the heads of the armed forces and Defence Minister Marlon Pascua of the governing right-wing National Party, Matamoros said his remarks had been misinterpreted.

The new version is that the TSE will seek to “expand” the functions of the military, including the possibility of allowing members of the armed forces to vote. (Neither soldiers nor the police vote in Honduras.)

Both Matamoros and Pascua praised the role played by the military in the November elections organised by the coup government, which were won by Porfirio Lobo, who took office in late January and whose government is recognised by less than 60 countries.

Experts consulted by IPS said the military’s growing role in the public sphere is one of the most painful consequences of the Jun. 28, 2009 coup d’état, when Zelaya was taken from his house at gunpoint and put on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas, and Roberto Micheletti was named president.

Leticia Salomón, an expert in military affairs, told IPS that as a result of the coup, we now have “highly politicised security forces, and in the case of the military, the leadership has become a decision-making body, which is simply not right.”

The military has repositioned itself in society over the last 15 years, until achieving a degree of legitimacy. But “that all came crashing down with the coup,” she said.

“They threw overboard everything that had been built up, and they have mixed up defence objectives with the national and political objectives of a country,” Salomón said.

Her concerns were echoed by other analysts, both Honduran and foreign, who took part last week in an academic forum on the country’s future, organised by the National Autonomous University of Honduras and civil society groups.

Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), said there is an urgent need to review the military’s role in democracy, and added that “weak governance and the dearth of public policies aimed at reducing inequality and poverty fuel, to some extent, coups d’état.

“Leaving in place constitutional articles that are cast in stone also paves the way for recurrent crises,” said the Chilean academic.

There are at least seven articles in the Honduran constitution that cannot be modified. They include a prohibition of consecutive terms for presidents and of holding a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. (To amend the constitution, the vote of two-thirds of all members of parliament at two consecutive regular annual sessions are needed.)

It was precisely Zelaya’s attempt to hold a non-binding referendum to ask voters if they wanted a constituent assembly that served as the argument for the coup.

A year after calling on the armed forces to topple the government, Lobo’s National Party and the centre-right Liberal Party — to which Zelaya himself belonged but which he alienated by making a shift to the left — have been forced to consult them, and avoid talking about reforms of the military’s role, a legislator who asked to remain anonymous in order to steer clear of “friction” with other lawmakers from his party, told IPS.

For his part, sociologist Eugenio Sosa remarked to IPS that the role played by the military in “democracy-building processes” should be reviewed “so they can no longer veto or arbitrate” in public life.

Under president Carlos Roberto Reina (1994-1998), Honduras underwent a process of demilitarisation — a strategy that earned the late former president at least three attempts on his life attributed to groups in the military opposed to the reforms.

Reina, according to Salomón, was the only president who imposed himself on the military. “The rest began to yield ground and power to them, including Zelaya himself,” she said, saying “the forms that this took ranged from paying for favours to salary hikes and other mechanisms to keep them happy.”

In addition, the soaring levels of violent crime — Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world — have also given the military and police growing influence.

“Today we are paying dearly for these policies,” she added.

In Salomón’s view, the armed forces should be downsized in accordance with the real needs of the country, and in order to do that, they must lose their power of veto.