Is civilian control of the military necessary for constitutional government? The odd case of Honduras.

So, apparently, the Honduran military has shipped its president off to exile in Costa Rica. But this isn’t a normal military coup, for early reports indicate that the president was in the course of a bunch of illegality. He was limited to one term, but he was trying to institute an illegal referendum for a second, against the wishes of the legislature (which made the referendum illegal) and over the objections of the supreme court. He sacked the head of the military for refusing to help with the illegal referendum, and aforesaid head voluntarily stepped down … I understand that the military intervention only happened after the supreme court ordered either the reinstatement of the military head or the president’s actual removal.

On those facts (which are doubtless disputed, but let’s assume they’re true), is the global condemnation of the military’s action too hasty? (Let’s also assume here that the military hands over power to some civilian appointed by the legislature.) It seems to me that there’s a point at which it’s reasonable for the military of a country to intervene when the executive is acting completely illegally and when the other (equally democratically legitimate) branches of government have told him so.

Taking things into the U.S. context for a bit: suppose that Congress had impeached and convicted Nixon after Watergate, and he refused to step down — suppose further that he ran into court, and the Supreme Court told him to obey Congress. But he still refused to step down. How would he actually be removed? Would people just stop obeying him? Or would he actually be arrested? In the U.S. that might not be by the military, but it would be some wing of the executive branch (FBI? Secret Service?) — in countries with less of a strong posse comitatus tradition, it might well be the military.

There are interesting theoretical implications here for notions like constitutionalism and the rule of law. Is it about maintaining a certain kind of formal relationship between different parts of government, or about actually complying with the law? If the facts in Honduras are as they’ve been reported, the two need not go together, and rogue branches might have to be forcibly restrained sometimes.

(Also interesting: did the Costa Rican government — about the warmest and fuzziest government in the Americas — cooperate with this exile? If so, why? If not, how’d the Honduran military get him there? Did they violate Costa Rica’s sovereignty in the process? Cf. the previous post about Gitmo inmates.)


6 Responses to “Is civilian control of the military necessary for constitutional government? The odd case of Honduras.”

  1. Just me Says:

    I’ve been waiting for someone to express this opinion. Taking the facts as alleged by the new Honduran government as true, I don’t see anything wrong with what happened in Honduras.

    It seems to me that a distinct possibility exists that the Honduran legislature, courts, and military acted in a perfectly legal and legitimate way.

    If they did, why are we condemning their actions?

  2. Matt Simonton Says:

    Note that while the proposed referendum was technically illegal, the referendum itself would not have made term limits longer, but rather called for a congressional convention to vote on amending the constitution. Then, of course, there would be no guarantee that Zelaya would be reelected anyway, so this is not exactly a case of “he was trying to decree himself dictator for life” or something.

    This case is the sort of thing where “neutrality” or “objectivity” of analysis is potentially difficult to maintain. Perhaps the law, sensu stricto, had to be enforced, and the military was simply the only organ capable of doing that, but it remains unclear to me whether the action would have actually taken place without the concerted effort of the “conservative, wealthy” backers of the military, as the Washington Post puts it:

    So maybe that makes them the “guardians of the laws” or something (certainly they would say so), but to me it looks more like reactionaries looking for an excuse. You might respond that the rule of law has to be maintained somehow, but then you have to ask if the only possible solution in this case was a military coup and not a formal impeachment, legislative act, etc.

    It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how this plays out.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Matt, you make a good point, particularly about this not being a dictator-for-life sort of situation.

    On the other side, however, is the involvement of both other branches of government — it sounds like the legislature and the supreme court did support the removal, and at least arguably the military was acting under their orders. (Didn’t one of the stories say that the supreme court came out and said that it had ordered the military to remove him? This is a point that seems easy to disregard.) And it also seems significant that the replacement — voted in by the legislature — is from Zelaya’s own party.

    It would help if we knew what the provisions of Honduras’s constitution for removal of a president actually are — do any Spanish speakers have a copy?

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Although, on second thought, perhaps the better strategy would be to leave him in office and simply not count the referendum… his term, after all, hadn’t expired.

  5. Regular Commenter's Name Withheld Says:

    I know absolutely nothing about Honduran politics, and so can’t, and won’t, comment on it. But I would like to pose an abstract, theoretical question divorced from immediate, practical considerations:

    The suggestion that the referendum be declared void and the president be left in office points to a difficulty inherent to presidential systems, and one which might help to explain why so many of them collapse — shades of one G. Julius Caesar — into populist dictatorships. Zelaya, presumably, would insist that the legislature and the Supreme Court are wrong about the referendum’s constitutionality. But he’d still be in office, and, every day, he’d climb the bully pulpit and call for a vote. The accounts I’ve read seem to indicate that the majority of Hondurans would vote against Zelaya’s proposal. But public opinion can change, especially at the constant encouragement of an unaccountable executive. And here I mean “unaccountable” in a technical sense: unlike a prime minister, or even Queen Elizabeth (The Crown and Parliament Recognition Act 1689! The Act of Settlement!), a president cannot be recalled. Almost no presidentialist system has an effective. mechanism for removing incompetent or lawless presidents from office before the expiration of their terms, unless the president is completely without credibility (Nixon!), or the loyalty of at least some substantial part of the bureaucracy. And, generally speaking, people will take a sitting president seriously.

    People who live in stable political cultures, like, e.g., the United States, can find it easy to underestimate exactly how powerful overblown presidentialist rhetoric can be. Once the president’s activists start defying institutions, others join, and the threads holding political life together can unravel — like a child yanking on the loose thread in a cheap rug. The authority of traditional, and often elitist, institutions — like courts and legislatures — can disintegrate very, very quickly. Parliament met, until one day Cromwell started vilifying them, and then soon after he barged into their chamber, instructing all and sundry that God had commanded him to arrest offending lawmakers. Lofty Rome’s storied Senate’s transformation from grad assembly to impotent relic was likewise disturbingly rapid.

    Now, as I said, U.S. politics are remarkably stable in their foundations; cause and effect present really difficult and interesting questions, but it’s basically inconceivable that George Bush or Al Gore or Barack Obama or John McCain leading street marches in defiance of a united Congress and Supreme Court. But I suspect that has to do with the vagaries of psychology and “political culture,” whatever that is. It also probably has a great deal to do with the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both chose not to do that in the fiasco of 1800. One might say they started the relevant political culture, and solved any number of thorny coordination games along the way. I suspect that the real reason that a lot of presidentialist systems collapse is that they lack whatever characteristic of American politics it is in virtue of which it’s inconceivable that John McCain would lead marches against Congress and the Supreme Court. Mutatis Mutandis for the U.K. and Tony Blair, etc. As for what that characteristic is, that’s a dissertation or five.

    Related question: Is the Roman Republic properly classified as a presidential system? Or, at least, the Republic after Sulla?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Interesting question. It’s hard to get a grasp on what exactly constitutes a presidential system, however. Is the chief notion that both head of state and head of government are consolidated in a single person, distinguishing such systems from countries that have both elected presidents and elected p.m.s?

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