Strengthening Democracy in Honduras

The political map of Honduras will change for ever after last year’s political crisis, in which the vast majority of the Liberal party, supported by the main opposition party the Nacionalistas, and most of the small parties, denounced the Liberal president Manuel Zelaya after he had violated the Constitution and Supreme Court orders. For which the Supreme Court ordered his arrest by the military.

This has left the Liberal party, a party that has won 2 out of 3 elections the past 28 years, split. The left fraction around Manuel Zelaya and his ex foreign minister Patricia Rodas – who grew up in sandinista Nicaragua and clearly has her political ideology colored by that fact – has now decided to throw in their chips with the FNRP. They call themselves the “resistance” movement, in reference to a resistance against what they claim to be a “coup d’état” (i.e., the arrest and removal from office of Zelaya on June 28, 2009).

When the dust has settled, perhaps there will be three main parties instead of two in Honduras. That this is possible we see in the UK. The three might be a leftist party around FNRP (which will perhaps eventually drift to social democratic ideals rather than socialist ideals); the Liberal party based on liberal ideals; and the Nationalist party based on conservative ideals.

A problem now is that the FNRP is not accepting the legitimacy of the present government of Honduras, and thus not of the Republic of Honduras as such. From my Swedish background that is an absolutely outlandish position–and I mean that quite literally. A person who did not accept the law of the land was an outlaw, in the ancient jurisprudence of Scandinavia, and he had to seek refuge in the “outland” (i.e., abroad or in uninhabited land) since he was not protected by the law. Such a person could be killed without punishment. With the development of international law things have of course changed now, but that ancient principle is a foundation for the modern concept of nations, ever since the Peace of Westphalia: It is implicit that all citizens of a state must obey the laws of that state, or leave it.

In fact, the e-mail signature I use, “If you only knew, my son, with how little wisdom the world is run”, is a quote from a letter that Axel Oxenstierna wrote to his son when he sent him to negotiate the Peace of Westphalia on behalf of Sweden…

What FNRP is saying would be a crime in some countries, but in others it would not be a crime until they went from words to action. But regardless of the legality of it, what they are doing is, politically speaking, a very foolish and immature thing. And perhaps that is why the ruling party is allowing them to continue, because it benefits the Nationalists.

This is a pity, because Honduras really needs reform, and the FNRP has got some legitimate grievances. However, their leaders seem to lack political savvy, democratic experience, and wise advisers–or if they have, they don’t listen to them. Their whole strategy is based on them writing a new constitution, from scratch, even though it is unconstitutional according to the existing constitution, which they consider no longer to be valid. The problems with their position are, however, first that a large part of the population considers the existing constitution to be legitimate why the FNRP one automatically will be illegitimate (and according to the existing constitution all Hondurans must then restore the existing, which means the country will be split). Secondly, even if they manage to impose a new constitution, they will have done it at the price of undermining the rule of law, why it will be a Pyrrhus victory; what they really will have accoomplished, if they succeed in their enedeavor (which I find higly unlikely), is to establish the Law of the Jungle as the supreme principle in Honduras.

Thus, whether they succeed or fail in their strategy, they will fail to achieve their goals. What they need to do is to change strategy. And now I will give them some advice on what to do instead.

To achieve a functioning democracy, they must demonstrate that they are mature enough to take on the responsibility. They must participate in democratic meetings. They must demonstrate that they are ready to accept majority decisions, and implement them even if they initially voted against them.

When Micheletti was interim president he invited many of the present members of the FNRP to discussions, but they refused to attend such meetings. That was a childish reaction. It is true that meetings can be used for trickery, and they had reason to be weary, but it was unwise not to engage when the hand was streched out in search for a compromise. They had a position of power from which to negotiate, but they threw the opportunity away.

They no longer have a position of power from which to negotiate. Most countries have recognized the new government, and those that remain are getting increasingly isolated internationally, as Chávez is seen more and more as a dictator and terrorist-supporter by the week. They blew their best chance, and now they have to start with a new strategy.

That is why I advice them to start by demonstrating their committment to democracy, to the rule of law, to democratic meetings, and to following the rules. Only by doing that can they gain the confidence of their political opponents, a confidence that they need in order to negotiate reforms. They have to prove themselves as trustworthy partners in the business of managing the public good. They have to gain that respect.

The next step is to analyze the constitution and propose reforms that can increase democracy, prosperity, and transparency (thus decreasing corruption). All of this analysis has to be done, and debated publically, before the actual reforms to the constitution are proposed in Congress. This is necessary in order to gain legitimacy and public support.

As for possible reforms that may improve conditions in Honduras, I have previously proposed the introduction of parliamentarianism, thus reducing the president to a largely symbolic head of state. This can be done within the confines of the present constitution, as far as I can judge. The president cannot be reelected, but a prime minister could, meaning that in a parliamentarian system the FNRP could get that continuity that they apparently think is so important, while at the same time preventing caudillos from taking over, something that the right is rightly concerned about.

Furthermore, I would recommend the drafters of the constitutional reform to study the Swedish constitution and laws as regards the prohibition of politicians to deal with individual cases. This is a way to mitigate corruption. Note that the Swedish constitution no longer is based on the principle of power sharing, but on the sovereignty of the people. All power emanates from the people and is exercised through their elected representatives in parliament, city council, etc.

The Swedish-Finnish administrative system seems to me to be a unique design, based on ancient democratic principles. I have compared corporate law from Sweden, Denmark, France, and Florida, and while the Swedish system of governing a corporation matches the way all democratic bodies are ruled in Sweden, all the others follow a different system. The main difference is this:

In Sweden those elected cannot interfere in specifics. They hire someone to do the specifics, and all they can do if they don’t like his job is to fire him. Also, the elected persons can only take decisions in a group by voting in a formal meeting, that has to follow very specific rules (designed to prevent “palace coups”). Their main job is to set policy, and supervise that the implementation of the policy by the administration (meaning those who are employed, non-political persons) is as intended.

In the US they elect people for actual jobs. The problem with the US approach is that it leads to corruption. Instead of a corrupt permanent office holder, there is instead corrupt temporary office holders – unless the person is beyond corruption.

The Swedish form of representative democracy is designed to prevent corruption not through the threat of loosing the next election, but by design, while they are still in office. Also, it allows for persons to be hired based on competence, rather than elected based on fundraising ability. Since the state pays for university education, including in public administration, there are lots of people with a dedicated education for the task. While in the US, many officials have an education designed for the private enterprise, which is a different beast than public administration.

There is another key difference between USA and Sweden on the one hand, and Honduras on the other, that tends to be forgotten (although the UN takes it seriously and considers it perhaps the most important problem to deal with). And that is local sovereignty.

Swedish kommuner (communes) have local sovereignty, meaning they can levy taxes and decide how to use it. There are two levels of kommun, corresponding to departamento and municipalidad in Honduras. Both have an elected council, but no mayor (Sweden and Finland are the only countries in Europe that have no mayors as far as I know). Instead they are governed like a corporation in Sweden: The council hires an administrator (equivalent to a CEO), and he is in charge of operations. The council decides policy and supervises the administration, but does not decide individual cases. This latter is in stark contrast to the US, where the councilmen decide itty bitty details.

Honduras has very weak local sovereignty, and that may actually be a key thing that needs to change. Money is spent better locally, and corruption is fought better too. Furthermore, local democracy with budget responsibility will foster more responsible citizens, and activists who try to work for results rather than take to the streets and demand action like overgrown children.

Congressmen and -women of Honduras: Give the people local budget responsibility, and watch them start working for bettering the roads, instead of blocking the roads!