Honduran Term Limits and International Responses to Democratic Backsliding
On November 26, 2017, Honduras held historic presidential elections. An incumbent President was permitted to run for reelection for the first time since the adoption of the 1982 Honduran Constitution. However, the election was marred by irregularities and had been declared null by international observers from the Organization of American States (OAS). This is not, however, the beginning of the challenges that face Honduran democracy. The problems evident in the 2017 Honduras Presidential Election are reminiscent of that country’s 2009 coup. Both events highlight the need for stable electoral rules, the dangers of reelection manipulation, and effective and the importance of coordinated international responses to democratic backsliding.
In 2009, President José Manuel Zelaya declared his intention to hold a national referendum to amend the 1982 Honduran Constitution to permit him to seek reelection. Running for reelection was not only unconstitutional, Zelaya’s proposed changes were opposed by the other branches of the Honduran Government. Despite the reservations of the other branches, Zelaya opted to push forward with the referendum, leading to the other branches of the government and the military ousting him from power in a coup d’état. While Honduras showed signs of democratic contention before the coup took place, it wasn’t until after the coup that the OAS and nations from across the Western Hemisphere sought to contain the crisis. The OAS suspended Honduras from the organization. The United States, however, was faced with a conundrum in how to address the crisis and took minimal action in responding to the coup, particularly as the Honduran military held previously scheduled national elections six months later. This incident highlighted the difficulties the OAS faces in addressing democratic backsliding before an actual coup occurs and in determining when the crisis has ended.
While Zelaya’s reelection bid resulted in his ouster and international outrage, in 2015, another former Honduran President, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, and several legislators sought to change the electoral landscape. After sitting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez eased several opposition justices off the court, the Honduran Supreme Court declared that the constitutional provision banning reelections was, in fact, a violation of essential rights (Bolivia’s Evo Morales also made this argument following the failure of a referendum that would allow him to seek another term). President Juan Orlando Hernandez was the first beneficiary of the ruling that opened the door for presidents to seek reelection.
Despite his unpopularity and accusations of corruption, President Hernandez ran for reelection in 2017. Hernandez’s opponent, Salvador Nasralla, took an early lead as the initial vote counting began. Following National Electoral Commission’s mysterious silence, Hernandez’s vote count surpassed his opponents. Concerns over electoral fraud led Hondurans to take to the street in protest. As in 2009, the OAS was quick to condemn these irregularities. However, the United States did not and moved to recognize the electoral results. Once again, a lack of consensus and little action on the crisis led to a weakening of democratic governance in Honduras and the perception of weaknesses in the Inter-American Defense of Democracy Regime.
These cases highlight some of the risks to democracy that many countries in the Americas are currently facing. In recent years, Presidents from across the political spectrum have sought to extend term limits. This is particularly troubling given research suggesting that incumbent Presidents are more likely to engage in election fraud. Additionally, changing the rules of the electoral system undermines its legitimacy. While domestic political concerns may favor short-term gains over the survival of the political system, the international community should present a united front in addressing these challenges. However, as both of the Honduran cases show, the United States and the OAS have been at odds in how to address democratic backsliding in Honduras. While the OAS has taken a stance once clear evidence of a coup or electoral irregularities is discovered, it has failed to condemn the early signs of democratic backsliding and electoral tampering that were there prior to the actual event. As for the United States, rather than standing up for democratic governance, the US government has decided to pursue its own short-term geopolitical interests rather than reinforcing the liberal international order that the United States was the primary architect of. These conflicting views limit the ability of the Inter-American Defense of Democracy Regime.
Regardless of whether challenges to democratic governance come from the political left or the right, the international community must stand against the breakdown of democracy in the Americas. While the OAS has had a mixed track record in addressing these crises before they escalate, the United States has opted to pursue continuity and stability in the region over promoting democracy. If the international community is to effectively address democratic crises, the main players in the region must develop coordinated strategies to address these threats. Furthermore, we should all be skeptical of adjustments to constitutional limitations on term limits. While most presidents would like to seek extensions of their terms, term limits serve an important function in ensuring political opportunities for different political perspectives and a safeguard against electoral tampering. Honduras’s democratic breakdowns should serve as a lesson for how not to address democratic crises in the future.