July 9, 2009 / 6:58 PM / in 10 years

Q+A: The dispute that led to a coup in Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Veteran mediator President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica hosts talks on Thursday between the rivals for power in Honduras following last month’s military coup.

President Manuel Zelaya was ousted on June 28 after he clashed with the country’s Supreme Court, Congress and army over his effort to extend presidential term limits.

Here are some questions and answers about the balance of power between the different institutions in the impoverished Central American country.

Q - Why was Zelaya seen as such a threat?

A - Largely because of his increasingly friendship with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s socialist and anti-U.S. president. Honduras is a traditionally conservative country that never had the type of leftist insurrections that brought the Sandinistas to power in neighboring Nicaragua in 1979 and nearly put guerrillas in power in El Salvador, another neighbor, in the 1980s. When Zelaya allied himself with Chavez by taking Venezuelan oil at preferential prices and adopted some of Chavez’s populist rhetoric and policies, it raised concerns within the political and business class. Zelaya took office in 2006 and had been due to step down in 2010 after a single four-year term. His Chavez-like steps to seek support for amending the constitution and allowing presidential re-election finally triggered his ouster.

Q - What exactly did Zelaya do?

A - Zelaya was attempting to conduct nationwide balloting on June 28 — he called it a “survey” — to gauge popular support for a vote in the November elections on whether to hold a constituent assembly to amend the constitution. Such an assembly could have thrown state institutions into disarray, perhaps dissolving Congress and allowing for the president to seek re-election. The Congress, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal all said the June vote was illegal, but Zelaya insisted in going forward. As tension mounted over the looming vote, Zelaya angered the military by trying to fire the head of the armed forces — he was overruled by the Supreme Court — and then by seizing ballot boxes at an army base.

Q - Why couldn’t Congress and the courts stop him?

A - Because they are weak and don’t carry the same weight as they would in a more mature democracy. Honduras has historically seen its affairs heavily influenced by foreign powers like the United States and the foreign companies that invested here, supported by the army, which has been the final arbiter. For most of the period between 1951 and 1982, the country was governed by the military. In the case of the current crisis, it was the army that had the final say on Zelaya’s survey because it had the responsibility of distributing ballots and ballot boxes. The army refused to do so, citing the other branches of government who said Zelaya’s planned vote was illegal. Moreover, the army is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the transfer of power.

Q - Why not impeach him?

A - There is no impeachment law as such, but legal experts who support Zelaya’s ouster say his actions triggered a clause in the constitution that requires the removal from office of any public official seeking to change the laws governing the presidential limit of a single four-year term.

Q - Why not simply charge Zelaya with a crime?

A - Because Honduras does not have the kind of professional, independent judiciary to handle criminal charges against a president, nor the institutions needed for a political trial. It appears the army and civilian authorities decided they needed to remove Zelaya from the country in order to avoid bloodshed in the event Zelaya supporters rebelled against any trial.

Q - So who is holding the real power in Honduras?

A - In this crisis, it is the army. The Supreme Court and Congress proved incapable of stopping Zelaya in his push to conduct a ballot that his opponents feared could lead to an extension of presidential term limits. In the end, it was the military that seized Zelaya and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. But the army was not acting on its own — the Supreme Court said it had asked the army to remove Zelaya and Congress installed Roberto Micheletti soon after the ouster.

Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia, Editing by Frances Kerry

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