As readers of this space know, we have been following the evolving constitutional story in Honduras in recent months. The constitutional process erupted yesterday as the Honduran military pre-empted a scheduled referendum and ousted President Zelaya.
The question on the ballot was whether Hondurans should replace the constitution. Before polls opened, the military cast its vote (an influential one, no doubt) by putting Zelaya on a plane to Costa Rica (in his pajamas), cancelling the referendum, and engineering the selection of a new president by legislators in an inpromptu session of the legislature. The background story involves the President’s motives for for rewriting the constitution. That constitution, in effect since 1982 and amended in 20 of the 29 years of its existence by my count, has already doubled its life-expectancy (historically, Latin American constitutions have lasted about 15 years). Zelaya had sought a replacement of the constitution, ostensibly to update it, but critics had feared that he would use the process to allow for his re-election. Certainly, amending or replacing constitutional documents in order to do just that has a long history in Latin American constitutionalism.
Recently, that sort of updating has been accomplished rather peacefully. In the last 30 years, 15 or so Latin American republics have amended or replaced their constitution to allow for re-election of the sitting president without too much trouble or violence. That streak may be at an end. In that sense, the Honduran events illuminate the tension between democratic and constitutional stability. Yesterday’s military action ostensively preserves the formal continuity of the current constitution, while undermining any real sense of democratic stability.