Authors: Daniel Altschuler and Javier Corrales
Despite the recent military coup against Manuel Zelaya, Hondurans will most likely elect their next president by the end of 2009. This might end the crisis that led to the coup. But elections will not fix all of Honduras’ political ills. Honduras must also address the decline in the quality of democracy that predates the current crisis, or else it will remain dangerously susceptible to more breakdowns.
On the surface, Honduras prior to this crisis appeared to have moved steadily toward strengthening democracy. From 1982 to 2008, Honduras held seven consecutive civilian elections followed by uninterrupted presidential terms. Honduras also seemed to have tamed its military by the mid-1990s, as civilian leaders had reined in military spending and the military’s political veto power.
The current crisis in Honduras is a stark reminder that democracy entails more than free and fair elections and a military that answers to civilian authority—crucial as these may be. Democracies must also expand the rule of law, citizens’ access to the justice system, state guarantees of civil and political rights, and protections for political minorities. These added aspects of democracy help democracy deliver positive development outcomes and ensure citizens’ political satisfaction. In Honduras, these added aspects were faltering prior to the recent constitutional crisis.
The immediate cause of the June coup was clearly the inability of democratic institutions to rein in a president who was violating the law. The military compounded the problem by expelling the president. But the longer-term problem was a decline in the quality of democracy, which was hampering the political system’s ability to protect citizens and spread prosperity. Poverty remains rampant, corruption pervasive, and crime has gotten worse. In addition, inequality in this vastly unequal society increased during several years in the last decade. And in surveys we have conducted in rural areas, people often report feeling abandoned by an incapable or absent state.
Honduras’ low quality of democracy has produced disenchantment. Data compiled by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) in 2008 shows that less than half of Honduras’ population expressed confidence in the Congress, the judiciary, or the Presidency. Tellingly, Hondurans reported greater trust in the military than in any other national political institution. In terms of state legitimacy and citizens’ political tolerance, Honduras ranked last after Haiti.
Political behavior has changed, as well. Honduran voters used to go to the polls, virtually without fail, to vote for one of the two dominant right-of-center parties. In recent elections, turnout dropped along with party identification. Discontent with the two dominant political parties was rising, but no clear alternative was emerging. The political system was becoming a rudderless ship. Because of these trends in attitudes and behaviors, LAPOP went as far as to dub Honduras in 2008 as a ‘democracy at-risk’, a claim that now appears prescient.
This precarious pre-coup situation suggests that Honduran democracy may not be immune to future threats, even if the current crisis eases. As with humans and viruses, all democracies in developing countries are susceptible to a wide array of potential assaults: overzealous presidents, drug lords capturing the state, corrupt politicians in congress, executive-legislative deadlock, and ruling parties in disarray. But democracies with low quality institutions are least likely to survive these assaults, let alone resolve them legally. The current crisis may very well abate with the upcoming election, but Honduras, under the best short-term scenario, will still remain vulnerable to future viral attacks.
Daniel Altschuler is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford. Javier Corrales is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Amherst College. They are studying civic participation in Honduras.