A Legal and Mandatory Coup?

Looks like I wasn’t the only one to scratch my head about the eagerness to condemn what transpired in Honduras as an anti-democratic, extral-legal military coup. Jason Steck, writing at RCW’s The Compass, tries to clear things up:

What both sides miss is that a “coup” isn’t always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.

[. . .]

. . . [S]ome countries explicitly endow their military with a role inmaintaining democratic governance. . .

[. . .]

As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if theHonduran military was specifically authorized by a court order toarrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact thatthe American military would never be so authorized should not distractus from the possibility that legal authorizations for militaryinterventions into politics might exist in other countries’constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, infact, a legal coup. (Emphasis in original.)

Notice that all of the best-case scenarios for the Iranian opposition stilldepend on the Iranian security apparatus carrying out the same kind of”legitimate” coup as that of the Honduras military. Though the Iranianjudiciary/clerocracy is not at odds with the executive (yet), the legal grounds for such a mutiny are based on the Iranian regime having undermined itsown legitimacy and democratic bona fides by both falsifying election resultsand violently repressing subsequent protests.

John Boonstra makes the good point that, given U.S. history in the region, coming down in clear opposition to the military removing an elected head of state was the safe move, even if it didn’t keep Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from accusing the CIA of being behind . (Question: Was the CIA behind Chavez’s failed 1992 coup attempt?)

But optics aside, the events in Honduras present a pretty challenging problem in political science theory, and don’t fit very neatly into simple categories of right and wrong. A more satisfying (and constitutional) outcome wouldhave been legislative impeachment of the president. But as the pasteight years Stateside demonstrate, when you don’t have the votes inCongress, politics can easily supercede constitutionality, with theresult being the erosion of rule of law and civil liberties protections.

At that point, the only thing that stands in the way of tyranny is the willingness of those entrusted with enforcing the rule of law to do so, which essentially means choosing a side. And I think history is kinder to the judiciary than it is to the executive when it comes to standoffs between judges and presidents. (Think Roosevelt and the attempt to pack the Court, or more recently Pakistan’s Musharraf and the attempt to sack the Chief Justice.)

So given the choice, I think I’d rather see the military side with the judges. Then you have to hope the military command remains united. Because if it does, you end up with a less than ideal, but final, outcome. If not, you end up with civil war.

More World Politics Review