July 2, 2009

The Honduran Constitution's Checks on Executive Power

Carroll Andrew Morse

This was CNN's description, from June 25, of the events that led to the ouster of Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales…

The Honduran Supreme Court ordered Thursday that the military’s top commander be returned to his job immediately, a little more than 12 hours after President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales fired the general for saying the armed forces would not support a constitutional referendum scheduled for Sunday.

Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez had said the military was caught in a difficult position because the Supreme Court had ruled earlier that the referendum is illegal but Zelaya was going ahead with the vote and instructed the armed forces to provide security.

The heads of the army, navy and air force had resigned to show their support for Vasquez….

The court ruled 5-0 that Zelaya violated the general’s constitutional rights by firing him without cause, said magistrate Rosalina Cruz.

The referendum asks voters to place a measure on November’s ballot that would allow the formation of a constitutional assembly that could modify the nation’s charter to allow the president to run for another term.

What this, and other MSM coverage of events in Honduras neglects, is the fact that the nation of Honduras has a Constitution -- a Constitution that is very, very serious about its term-limit on the chief executive.

Fortunately, the blogosphere has been picking up the slack. Brad Lawless Shepherd of the Zero Sheep blog has provided an excellent compilation of references and links analyzing the Constitutional basis of Zelaya's ouster and has noted two Constitutional provisions, inseparable from the crisis, that Honduras' courts and military have been operating under…

  1. Article 239, which makes it illegal for the President to propose to extend his tenure in office beyond a single term, with penalties of 1) immediate removal from office and 2) a 10-year ban on public service. ("El que quebrante esta disposición o proponga su reforma…cesarán de inmediato en el desempeño de sus respectivos cargos, y quedarán inhabilitados por diez años para el ejercicio de toda función pública"; any term limits supporters in the US feeling wimpy right now?), and
  2. Article 272, which makes defending the "alternation" in office of Presidents an enumerated duty of the Honduran military ("Se constituyen para defender… la alternabilidad en el ejercicio de la Presidencia de la República.")
These are certainly different procedures than are found in the Constitutions of the United States and Western Europe, and I suppose that in the minds of some that is enough to make them "wrong", but they seem to have well-anticipated the types of challenges to democracy and the rule of law that Hondurans might face.

Actually, we in Rhode Island should be able to relate, just a little bit, to the initial events that fomented the crisis in Honduras. In 2006, Rhode Island's legislature stripped the power the Governor previously had to place non-binding questions on the general-election ballot. If the Governor had declared that he was going to ignore the change in the law and ordered the Secretary of State to put his questions on the ballot, would that have been considered legitimate?

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Thanks for the link, but just FYI, my name is Brad Shepherd -- Brad Lawless is a friend of mine whose name you saw in my Twitter feed. Not that I care particularly about getting the attribution, but I'm not sure how Lawless would feel about having his name attached to my article.

Posted by: brad at July 2, 2009 12:04 PM

Zelaya was elected President in 2006 and the Honduran Constitution limits the President to one four-year term. The vote Zelaya was seeking was a nonbinding consultation poll (Honduras has a law allowing elected officials like the President to conduct consultation polls) regarding whether there should be a referendum in November seeking to convene a Constitutional Convention
When a president of a democracy violates the constitution he is tried and "IMPEACHED" not kidnapped and sprited away in the dark hours of the morning, what part of "RULE OF LAW" is it that is so hard for the right to understand?
My gawd people....at least ACT like you respect democracy, even if you really hate it.

Posted by: bud at July 2, 2009 2:57 PM

Yes, Bud, speaking for myself, I respect the rule of Honduran law, under which the military carried out their constitutional role - the constitution of Honduras, not of the US. Or is there a clause in the Honduran constitution that talks about the military "impeaching" the president?

Good post, Andrew, I was wondering about this.

Posted by: Monique at July 2, 2009 5:59 PM

The leftists,including our president,are trying to make this into the new "Arbenz" case.They are still quacking about that ,which occured in 1954.None of our leftist friends seem particularly concerned over the near total suppression of freedom of expression in Venezuela by Chavez,because he is "progressive".

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 3, 2009 6:41 AM

Wow, Carl. It looks like you nailed this. I've been reading through the Honduran constitution tonight, and I'm awed and appalled at the ignorance (or slant) of mainstream media with regards to this situation. I know sources close to high ranking Honduran Army officers, and these officers are appalled at the treatment that they're receiving in the media for exercising their constitutional mandate. There is no provision in the constitution for impeachment, but there are several places where it advocates his removal in such a situation as this, at the legislature's will (see Article 205, Section 15). Thanks for the balanced coverage of this, and keep up the good work.

--A US American living in Latin America, with a heart for Honduras

Posted by: Russianspi at July 3, 2009 11:35 PM

Plus, red (har!) flags should go up if you find you're on the same side as Hugo Chavez and either of the Castro brothers.

Posted by: Monique at July 4, 2009 8:46 AM

... in the matter of what constitutes a good government structure and hand off of power.

Posted by: Monique at July 4, 2009 10:05 AM
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