The Sham Elections in Honduras

Why Obama shouldn't turn a blind eye to the undemocratic shenanigans in Tegucigalpa.

On Sunday, when Hondurans go to the polls to elect a new president, Barack Obama's administration may be tempted to congratulate the winner, gradually resume normal diplomatic and economic relations with the successor government to the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, and thus enable the de facto government that drove him from office to erase the remaining stains of its coup d'état.

Yield not unto temptation. This election is taking place in a political environment contaminated by repression, violence, and fear. If the U.S. government recognizes the vote, it will grant the de facto regime led by former parliamentary head Roberto Micheletti a legitimacy it does not deserve; it will needlessly lengthen a crisis that is hurting Honduras, its people, and its prospects for real democracy; and it will harm the U.S. image in the region. Most importantly, there is an alternative to this "see no evil" strategy.

What has transpired in Honduras in recent weeks has eliminated the prospects for free and fair elections. Actions specifically aimed at suppressing political organizing for the election, including mass arrests, illegal detentions, and violence -- documented by respected international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -- have yet to be investigated or prosecuted by the Honduran attorney general's office.

More than 50 candidates for public office, including several running for congressional and mayoral seats and one presidential candidate, have removed their names from the ballot in protest against the coup regime.

Lists of anti-coup activists have been compiled by local mayors and given to the military. The government's telecommunications commission has continued to block pro-Zelaya media outlets, forcing them to play reruns of old cowboy movies rather than news critical of the coup regime.

All of this while the Micheletti government reinstated a state of siege last weekend and intimidated opponents by announcing that it has trained hundreds of Honduran lawyers to prosecute individuals participating in a boycott of Sunday's vote. No matter the turnout, no matter the result, these are not conditions within which legitimate elections can take place.

Moreover, the coup and the campaign have made utterly clear that the constitutional framework in one of Latin America's poorest countries may be insufficient for dealing with the vast array of social, political, and economic challenges facing Honduras -- with or without a new, democratically elected president.

In a country where 70 percent live in poverty -- in a system riven with corruption, as Transparency International recently made clear -- it is not hard to understand why Zelaya's calls for a constitutional assembly in June resonated deeply with Honduran society.

Although coup leaders and others question Zelaya's method and motives, this crisis has revealed that many Hondurans still want a significant reform of their country's Constitution. It was the United States' own handpicked negotiator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who called the Honduran Constitution "the worst in the world." With neither any clause for impeachment nor any recourse for amendment, Arias had the document dead to rights. And it is easy to imagine the events of June repeating themselves if serious debate over constitutional reform does not continue once the facade of democracy is restored. Indeed, it is just this sort of national conversation that the majority of Hondurans still seem to desire. Just one month ago, 54 percent of Honduran respondents told a U.S. polling firm that a constitutional assembly would now be the best way for resolving the current crisis.

In the end, the Honduran people themselves will need to decide what, if any, changes they want to make to their Constitution, and whether any such changes can be made through a piecemeal reform process or whether a constitutional assembly to rewrite the document altogether will ultimately be necessary. For now, however, the United States should publicly support such a conversation, beyond Sunday's vote. And most importantly, it should do its part to ensure an open political environment exists for doing so.

In other words, don't bless these elections and walk away. Instead, Washington should maintain its suspension of government-to-government assistance and not recognize the newly elected regime until there is a full restoration of civil liberties and steps are taken to prosecute human rights abuses. Next, the Obama team should work with the Organization of American States and other democracies -- the vast majority of which is reluctant to endorse these elections -- to find a way to bring Honduras back into the international community. For starters, if the new government is to recover any semblance of legitimacy, it will need to ensure that adequate conditions exist for a broad and pluralistic debate and dialogue, including with respect to any constitutional issues. Moreover, such a dialogue should be seen as responding to the legitimate rights and concerns of Honduran citizens, rather than being branded as treason, as is customary for the coup government today.

Supporting this next process may be the only way for the United States to retain a trace of goodwill among many rightfully frustrated Hondurans -- not to mention the rest of Latin America, disappointed that five months of hemispheric unity might end because of a hasty and ill-considered decision to recognize Sunday's elections.



How the West Lost Turkey

Is the West's increasingly loveless marriage with Turkey finally headed toward acrimonious divorce?

Lately, some on the right in Washington have fretted that Turkey's religiously oriented Justice and Development Party, the AKP, will distance the country from its Western allies, eroding secularism as it seeks tighter bonds within the Middle East. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed some very sensitive Western buttons: He has dismissed concerns over Iran's nuclear program, for instance, and canceled a military exercise with Israel, holding one with Syria instead.

These moves leave plenty to worry about -- including the possibility that the United States will make things worse by worrying about all the wrong things. But Erdogan's decisions do not augur the rise of an Islamist foreign policy in Turkey. The more troubling reality is that they are the inevitable outcome of long-brewing domestic trends. In limiting cooperation with Israel and improving relations with neighbors like Iran and Syria, Erdogan is playing to Turkish leftists and rightists, secularists and Islamists. He's pandering to voters who already dislike the United States and Israel while cleverly, if cynically, pursuing Turkey's national interests. A good politician from any other party would do the same.

Understanding Erdogan's political calculus starts with understanding that in Turkey anger at the West is near universal. Where Islamists see a global crusade against their faith, secular leftists see global capitalism and U.S. imperialism. Many Islamists think Israel and the United States are secretly working with the Turkish military to overthrow the democratically elected Islamist government. Conversely, many secularists think Israel and the United States are using the AKP to weaken Turkey by undermining its secular identity. According to a recent poll, 72 percent of people in Turkey believe foreign powers are working to break apart their country. It's little comfort that they disagree on how.

Turks themselves were never enthusiastic about their country's relationship with Israel. The military was, though, and for much of Turkey's recent history it controlled the country's foreign policy. Now, in an increasingly democratic Turkey with more power centers when it comes to foreign affairs, the temptation for politicians to pander to anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and anti-Washington sentiment is hard to resist -- as seen in Erdogan's recent statements.

The more impatient Washington gets with this dynamic, the worse it will be. Suggesting, for instance, that it wouldn't be so bad if the Turkish army were still running the show just plays into the hands of millions of anti-American conspiracy theorists -- who are surprisingly attentive to statements from think tanks and Capitol Hill. It also feeds the illusion that the Turkish military will remain reliably pro-American. Older, higher-ranking officers continue to work closely with their U.S. counterparts. But younger officers who grew up viewing the United States as their enemy are rising through the ranks.

Fortunately, Erdogan's friendship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoys less popular support. And though moderates decry the friendship, fringe rightists and leftists applaud it. Last June, both moderate Islamists and moderate secularists embraced the Iranian protesters as kindred spirits. To secularists, many of whom view Erdogan as little more than a Turkish Ahmadinejad, the protesters were fighting against theocracy. To Islamists, the protesters were fighting for democracy, with the ayatollahs cast in the authoritarian role of the Turkish military. After President Abdullah Gul and Erdogan rushed to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his victory, several columnists in the reliably pro-government Zaman newspaper broke with the party line to condemn the brutality on the streets of Tehran.

Meanwhile, more partisan voices on both extremes denounced the protesters as American or Zionist puppets. A secular columnist, for instance, described Neda Agha-Soltan -- the protesting young woman whose death was seen around the world on YouTube -- as a militant in George Soros's army who had removed the cross from her neck to pose as a protester. An Islamist paper claimed she was still wearing the cross when she was shot.

In time, democratization will help discredit the radicals on both sides. Until then, Washington's best partners remain those moderates who, whatever they think of the United States, at the very least share a mutually comprehensible view of the world.

There are also powerful economic and strategic interests driving Turkey's foreign policy of which watchers in Washington should take better notice. In recent years, a vibrantly capitalist Turkey has bolstered its regional trade to great effect, looking for markets not just in the Middle East but also in old enemies such as Armenia. Lifting visa requirements with Syria in September, for instance, has already been a boon to businessmen in southern Turkey. Russia is now the country's largest trading partner, and the Wall Street Journal reports that Turkey's trade with Sudan has tripled since 2006. Iran, meanwhile, is a major source of cheap natural gas, keeping Turkey's economy growing. How shocked can the United States be if that makes Ahmadinejad look a little less despotic in Ankara?

Turkey is acutely aware that economic success is crucial to securing European Union membership. Indeed, Ankara has promoted its EU candidacy by claiming that it will help expand Europe's influence in the Middle East; the AKP has offered Turkey's services as a mediator between Syria and Israel as well as between Iran and the United States. Turkish politicians and intellectuals are quick to point out that they will be more useful to their allies if they are also on good terms with their allies' enemies. Being a bridge between East and West, they say, requires having a footing in the East as well.

Yet in trying to turn its dual identity into a strategic asset, Turkey runs the perpetual risk of finding itself rejected by both sides -- too Muslim and Middle Eastern for the Europeans, and too secular and pro-American for the Middle Easterners. Europeans might be more tolerant than Americans when it comes to entreaties to Iran and Iran's criticism of Israel, but only up to a point. Recently, the AKP seems to have realized it went too far for EU tastes in preparing to welcome Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Istanbul. Meanwhile, Turkey's relations with the Arab world have always been worse than many people realize. The Ottoman Empire, for one, is not fondly remembered by many of its former subjects. Turkey opposed Algerian independence in 1955 and almost attacked Syria in 1998. With the Cold War over and a resolution to Turkey's perennial Kurdish problem in sight, the general consensus in Ankara is that it's high time Turkey patched things up with the East as well.

The hostility Turks feel toward their allies is alarming. Their desire for peace and prosperity in the region is not. Ultimately, the challenge for Washington is to keep this distinction in mind when deciding how worried to get over developments in Turkey. Erdogan's challenge is even harder. He has to get what he can from Turkey's new friends in the East while also keeping -- and, if necessary, publicly defending -- Turkey's friends in the West.