Learning how to coup with democracy 1


Daniel Ortega and Dmitry Medvedev

How democracies perish is a very old question and the various answers given by political science are still disputed. How young and unconsolidated/aspirant democracies perish is an easier question, given the fact that some concrete lessons are offered generously these days, and their charm seems irresistible for would-be autocrats.

The very much praised phenomenon of democratic diffusion during the wave of democratization in Latin America since the 1970s seems to be undermined at the beginning of this century by another type of diffusion, of an authoritarian kind this time. The authoritarian diffusion manifests itself in various fields, but what is striking is the fact that the attacks against the media, the party system, the institutional checks and balances or the civil society are replicated from one country to the next, in a continuous process of imitating and learning from your neighbor the art of destroying democracy by just simply  asserting your democratic credentials and good intentions.

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Nicaragua ruled with an exceptional swiftness that one article of the Constitution is unconstitutional. The accused article concerns the prohibition to be re-elected as President for a consecutive mandate. In addition, the constitution stipulates that no person can occupy this function for more than two mandates. The president of Nicaragua is a former guerilla leader of the leftist Sandinista group and in 2011 he will end his second non-consecutive term. However, Daniel Ortega wants a new term and therefore he managed to by-pass the decision of the Congress (the proper way to amend constitutional articles) and asked the Supreme Court to decide. The case is aggravated by the fact that the Supreme Court was not in complete formation, meaning that only the Sandinista judges (named by the President) were present and adopted the ruling, before the rest of the judges, coming from the opposition, could reach the session.

The possibility of being re-elected in a presidential regime is a much disputed issue, with followers on each side. The strongest argument pro re-election would be the possibility to keep the president accountable and more responsible (if he wants another term of office and is not satisfied with just one “hit-and-run” mandate), whereas the other camp warns of the dangers posed by a president with so much power, especially in countries with very weak legislatives, frail party systems and civil societies. In the Latin American world, this executive power is exacerbated also by the collusion between the judges in the Supreme Court and the president responsible for their nomination. Whatever the conclusion between these two situations – an unaccountable president or one with too much formal and informal leverage, it is clear that the Madisonian tradition of strong checks and balances is absent, as it is also the skepticism of the founding American father towards any individual occupying a seat of power – and the limited number of fixed mandates is precisely that formal obstacle against autocrats.

The situation in Nicaragua is serious in itself, but what should also be taken into account is the striking similarity with the case of Honduras since June this year. Four months ago, the Honduran democracy suffered a number of very severe attacks against its formal democratic institutions, and especially the Constitution. Manuel Rosales Zelaya, the former president, exiled after being officially accused of undermining the Constitution and the rulings of the Electoral Court and the Congress against several tentative efforts to push a non-constitutional referendum, is now struggling to return as the de jure president of Honduras and finish his term. The international community in an almost complete formation (UN, EU, the Organization of the American States and the US) threatened to ignore the results of the November general elections (presidential and parliamentary), although planned prior to the events leading to the exile of Zelaya and lawfully organized under the authority of a democratic and legitimate Electoral Court, backed by the approval of the Congress.

Had the US and the Obama administration ignored this tiny Central American country and its political conflict between the populist president Zelaya on the one side and the representatives of the legislative and the judiciary on the other, Honduras would be a storm in a teacup for some researchers of Latin American affairs. As it unfolded since the start of the campaign initiated by Chavez in order to back his ally in ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), to which Barrack Obama immediately rallied, together with all the Latin American countries, Honduras is a dramatically important case in the so-called third wave of democratization. Honduras is a young democratic polity, still struggling with various obstacles to its institutional consolidation, the institutionalization of the rule of law (and especially the strengthening of its judiciary, a major Latin American challenge) and the nefarious corruption linked to the clientele networks made possible by a very strong executive, the President, unsystematically checked by the other branches of power, the legislative and the judiciary. The latter is all the more vulnerable, considering the huge role the president plays in the nomination of some of the judges in the Supreme Court and their dependence on the President’s party in Congress, especially when his allies possess a majority in the legislative.

Honduras is such an exceptional case because this unconsolidated democracy, highly dependent on foreign aid (European and American) for long-term projects aiming at democracy building (institutional consolidation but also civil society support), managed to protect the democratic order four months ago, by opposing an illegal referendum pushed by the President in total disregard with the provisions of the Constitution. In this case the Congress was backed by the Electoral Court, the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman. However, they made one great error and exiled Zelaya, which triggered the legitimate but inflated reaction of the international community. Instead of backing the decision of the democratically elected Congress, the US decided to push for the return of Zelaya as president and an amnesty law, therefore overruling the Honduran legislative and judiciary. The sad irony these days is that the same US announced the signing of a successful deal to reinstate Zelaya with the approval of the Congress and the Supreme Court. After the deliberation in the congress and the probable reinstatement of a golpista president, this effort would close a full circle of non-sense, in which the leading democracy in the world sides with Chavez, Castro and Ortega to give a blow to a rule-of-law-abiding parliament so that a president which obviously transgressed the constitution could be legitimated and returned to his seat of power.

After the presidential elections in Honduras this winter, in which Zelaya is not a candidate (a condition of the signed agreement), everything could return to normal in this country, but the lesson has been learned by the neighboring incumbent president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega. Not only that he can use the power of this precedent, but he is also free from some nasty obstacles that Zelaya had to deal with: an independent legislative and judiciary, a strong political opposition with the courage to protect the principle of the rule of law and the horizontal accountability (Guillermo O’Donnell), that the president tried to elude in order to consolidate his power. Nicaragua is in a far worse situation with respect to its state of democracy and far more embroiled in the not so transparent activities of his friend Hugo Chavez, the president of the oil-rich Venezuela and the leader of ALBA. He is the president who offers these days the most interesting lessons for would-be dictators trying to cope with independent media, opposition parties and the legislative or judiciary branches.

These two cases of presidential abuses of power on the side of the leftist-populist camp mentored by Hugo Chavez should not make us ignore a similar case of presidential excess in Colombia as we speak. The Colombian president Alvaro Uribe is now at the end of his second mandate and already set in motion the formal procedures in order to amend the constitution and call for a referendum at the beginning of the next year so that he can be re-elected. At the end of the day, the difference between the Colombian amendment of the constitutional text and the case of Nicaragua is only a difference of style: the former president, enjoying high rates of popularity and a more friendly relation with the opposition and the other branches of power, decided to take a more elegant path toward his re-election. Manuel Zelaya, unfortunately for him, had the entire political and judicial elite against him and a relatively strong media to report his illegitimate moves. Daniel Ortega, however, is the most carefree of the three presidents considered here. He didn’t have to fight a resilient Supreme Court or to confront a unified Congress against his move. He just brought together a couple of his brave Sandinista men from the Supreme Court and convinced them that one tiny constitutional article is simply “inapplicable”.


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