Paraguay – Impeachment of Fernando Lugo – Oh Brother, It’s Honduras, Part II – 23 June 2012

Oh brother, here we go again.

A few years ago, it was claimed that there had been a “coup” in Honduras when President Manuel Zelaya, clearly acting contrary to the Constitution of Honduras, advocated for a ballot initiative to allow him to run again and potentially succeed himself as President. The Honduran constitution clearly forbids this: “Article 239: No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or a designated person. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” But when the constitutional court attempted to enforce this, supporters of Zelaya cried coup and the country went nuts for several months. When the dust settled and a new vote for president was held, the conservative candidate (that is, the opponent of Zelaya) won, so it’s hard to really portray this as democracy defeated, because supporters of the president did zero to even elect someone with the president’s views. The Honduran “coup d’état” has now, rightly, receded into history, and the rule of law has prevailed.

But now Paraguay is about to get into the act. We are now reading about a “coup d’état” being perpetrated against the Paraguay president Fernando Lugo. As was the case in Honduras, Paraguayans are apparently going about this “coup” by the rather unorthodox means of requiring people adhere to the requirements of a written constitution. The president has been impeached, not overthrown.

Here’s what Paraguay’s constitution has to say:
“Section VI About Impeachment
Article 225 About Procedures
(1) The president of the Republic, the vice president, cabinet ministers, justices of the Supreme Court of Justice, the attorney general, the public defender, the comptroller and the deputy comptroller general of the Republic, and members of the Superior Electoral Court may be forced to undergo impeachment proceedings for malfeasance in office, for crimes committed in office, or for common crimes.
(2) The Chamber of Deputies, by a two-thirds majority, will press the respective charges. The Senate, by a two-thirds absolute majority, will conduct a public trial of those charged by the Chamber of Deputies and, if appropriate, will declare them guilty for the sole purpose of removing them from office. In cases in which it appears that common crimes have been committed, the files on the respective impeachment proceedings will be referred to a competent court.”

This has all been done in Fernando Lugo’s case. He has been removed from office by legal means. Despite this, the same chorus of South American leaders who declared Honduras undemocratic for following Honduran law are declaring Paraguay undemocratic today for following Paraguayan law.

The clearest answer to the polarisation of South American politics is not to resist these phonily-declared “coups”, but to ensure orderly and democratic transfer of power under law. Honduras is not a dictatorship today because it followed its own constitution, and those who would act to further democratise Honduras continue to have an opportunity to do so through democratic elections. Fears of a return to the “bad old days” in Honduras were vastly overblown in order to make Zelaya’s unconstitutional actions seem legitimate. We can now look back on that crisis three years ago and say “Who cares?”

I think it is equally likely we will do so about Paraguay. What we’re all overlooking here is that President Lugo could not keep the support of two-thirds of both houses of his legislature. That’s a pretty significant failing on his part, and it may point to the strength of democracy in Paraguay, rather than a weakness, that those houses were able to make their voices heard – in a country that once had, over the course of decades, a President-for-Life whose word was law.

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