In the Time of Legal Coups?


A June coup in Paraguay deposed left-leaning President Fernando Lugo and resembles others in recent years, specifically, the desire of the plotters to give the transition an appearance of legal legitimacy.  NYU Professor Greg Grandin said in an interview, “The Paraguayan coup could have happened without the Honduran coup of 2009, but Honduras softened the ground.  The similarities between the two are remarkable.”

Lugo, a former Catholic priest who refused to take a salary as President because 60% of the country lives in poverty, was impeached and after a two-day trial was removed from office.  Lugo had been accused of “poor performance” by his detractors in his handling of squatter removal in which several police and homeless people were killed.  He was elected in 2008. His speeches were infused with liberation theology rhetoric, earning him the nickname: “The Bishop of the Poor.”

According to Grandin, “Lugo was the first President to break with the land status quo.  He encouraged a peasant push for land reform.”  After the overthrow, Secretary General Ali Rodriguez of the Union of South American Nations worried that “due process” was not respected and described the action as a “threat of rupture in the democratic order.”

The democratic order in Paraguay is quite recent.  For 35 years the right wing dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and his Colorado Party, economically stratified Paraguay became a haven for fleeing Nazis and arms smugglers.  A U.S. Cold War ally, Stroessner was one of the longest-serving heads of state in history.  After his own ouster by a military coup of his own in 1989, the 1990s were rife with coup plots and government intrigue.  Landowners formed private armies on vast plantations and the nation became even more of, in Grandin’s words, “an oligarchic state.”

In Turkey, for example, before a 2010 referendum that changed the constitution, the military interdicted in coups—in 1960 and 1980—as a check to any perceived threat to the secular reforms undertaken by Ataturk. And Pakistan, like nineteenth century Prussia, has been described as an “army with a state,” because of the military’s superintending power over those cobbled together nations.

But no one was more surprised by the 2009 Honduran coup than populist President Zelaya.  His removal added a new element:  a “legal” varnish to the restoration of that country’s old guard.  “The idea of procedural democracy has taken hold in Latin America,” Grandin said.  “There have been a lot of fights between the social forces of left and right in electoralism.  But no one today is seriously testing the legitimacy of procedural democracy.”

In July 2009, President Zelaya was removed from power by gunpoint after he strengthened relations with Venezuela and sought constitutional changes through a referendum. The procedural nature of his removal was notable:  The Attorney General ordered Zelaya’s removal, the President’s resignation was forged, and he was subsequently shuttled out of the country before a provisional president was sworn in after congressional approval.  All of this had a clean, transitional and stable facade.  However, civil rights were suspended and despite human rights abuses and killings by the Honduran military, none of those involved in the coup have been brought to justice.

The hazy definition of a coup seems to be changing.  While voting fraud is endemic in developed countries like Russia—whose streets have been filled in recent months with demonstrations against President Putin’s authoritarianism and vote-rigging—the veneer of democracy is necessary.  Even failed states like Afghanistan or dictatorships like Iran must pretend to give their people a voice.  But the rule of law and an emphasis on amorphous, ever-changing procedures is the new fetish of the autocrats.  Maumoon Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives as a one-party state from 1978-2000, was asked about the removal of Mohammad Nasheed, a reformer who had been imprisoned and tortured by Gayoom’s military.  According to the Daily Sun, Gayoom’s first response was to call the new government “legal” and say that the new president “is the democratically elected president of the Maldives, according to our constitution.”  In exceedingly careful language he said, “I had no personal involvement in anything like a coup organised by myself.”


Did Mohammad Nasheed, the President of the Maldives really “resign,” if the officers threatened violence in the capital?  While no elections have been slated—they have been called for, which facilitates an image of peaceful transition and stability. Dhunya Maumoon, daughter of Maumoon Gayoom, is now in the country’s cabinet, demonstrating very clearly who is back in charge.


The most outstanding example of a legal coup in recent days has been in Egypt where the Mubarak-appointed supreme court dissolved an Islamist-led Parliament and returned power to the junta. Professor Khalid Fahmy of American University in Cairo described this phenomenon saying,  “This is a coup.”  “It’s a legal coup — not legal because it’s legitimate — but legal in the sense that the army has staged a coup using the courts,” he said.  Similarly, political scientist Omar Asour told NPR in June, “I think it’s a coup with a legal framework, and until now it’s bloodless, so – but we’ll see the reactions on the street.”


In the capitals of Egypt, Honduras, The Maldives, and Paraguay, thousands have demonstrated against these recent seizures of state.  And during the last week in June mounted riot police dispersed pro-Lugo protests in Asuncion with tear gas and shields.  Yet, the counterstroke within these states may lead to the mushrooming of social movements.  Professor Grandin said, “One similarity between Paraguay and Honduras that is overlooked:  It may backfire.  The Honduras plotters didn’t get their wish and now there is a stronger social movement than ever before.”

Brett Warnke is an intern at The Nation magazine.


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