In the past month, two countries that began their transition towards democracy in 1989 experienced non-military coups of dubious legitimacy.
On June 21, Paraguay’s parliament oversaw a two day political trial to remove President Fernando Lugo from his role as head of state nine months before the country’s general elections. On July 4, Traian Basescu of Romania was suspended after an equally brief legislative process; on July 29 the country is scheduled to decide by referendum whether to impeach the Romanian head of state. Each state has issued statements to assure regional players that the events were conducted in complete adherence to each country’s legal framework. Yet the brisk efficiency with which the former presidents were removed and the opaque quality of the processes have left observers skeptical of the events’ overall legitimacy.
Although all democracies have legal mechanisms to remove state officials who are perceived as unfit to govern, the strong political motivations behind the coups coupled with the endemic corruption and weak rule of law characteristic of Romania and Paraguay led observers to immediately be suspicious of the ousters. In more developed democracies, presidential impeachments are usually merely a threat that legislative branches wave over imposing executive bodies. Even in the event that they occur, impeachment trials normally go on for weeks before a decision is made and votes are usually close. In more cases that not, heads of state remain in power. In the United States, for example, Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate and remained in power. (Most observers believe Richard Nixon would have been successfully removed had he not resigned; but that was an extraordinary set of crimes and the investigation lasted nearly two years.) Yet the soft coups in Paraguay and Romania largely defied the trends above. The sudden and united nature of the events have had experts seriously doubting whether that the two men were given a fair chance to prepare for their defense, that is, that due process was heeded. Leading domestic and international leaders have since concluded that substantial portions of the official reports on the ousters are incomplete if not fabricated.
Although at first Lugo appeared to bend to the parliament’s decision, regional and domestic pressures to challenge the move has led him to embrace a campaign to overturn the ouster he terms is a “parliamentary coup.” He now has a steady following and is joined in his cause by outspoken regional leaders. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner withdrew her ambassador “until democratic order is re-established,” Chile issued a statement saying Lugo’s removal “did not comply with the minimum standards of due process,” and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said “legal procedures shouldn’t be used to abuse. … What we want is to help stability and democracy be maintained in Paraguay.”
These leaders also responded by taking action to ensure that Paraguay was isolated by regional bodies and that independent officials respond to the ouster. Shortly after President Lugo was impeached, the Union of South America Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) suspended Paraguay’s membership. The Organization of the America States has decided not to sanction the landlocked nation, but the Paraguayan Ambassador to the OAS has observed that the nation welcomes that a group be sent to confirm that government institutions are functioning “normally.”
Similar reaction has come in the wake of the move against Basescu. In a July 18 report conducted under the European Comission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, officials found that while, “A well functioning, independent judicial system, and respect tfor democratic institutions are indispensible for mutual trust within the European Union …recent steps by the Romanian Government raise serious concerns about the respect of these fundamental principles.” Their assessment goes on to openly question the relationship between Romania’s judicial branch and the country’s political leaders. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein, the U.S. ambassador to Romania, recently released a statement mirroring these concerns. He stated that he is “deeply concerned about any attempt to threaten the independence of Romania’s democratic institutions.”
The swift and unanimous efforts to condemn the coups show that there is little tolerance for such open threats to democracy. Both Romania and Paraguay have had to come to terms with the possibility of increasingly punitive repercussions from external forces, such as economic and political sanctions, if they do not take steps to appease international actors. And there is no indication that potential sanctions will be waived. Leaders in neighboring countries understand that if the coups are left unchecked and rule of law is compromised there could be serious regional pressures from refugees driven out by the instability.
But will international pressure be enough?
Although it could push the governments to make some changes, domestic action will be crucial to restoring government legitimacy in each country. Ultimately, it will be up to Romanians and Paraguayans to take responsibility for looking into how the coups were allowed to happen and what needs to be done to eliminate any process, legal or illegal, by which elected figures are hastily and arbitrarily removed from power. Domestic actors must forcefully and credibly push for the deposed leaders to be reinstated, that early elections are had, or that the situations be handled in some other manner that is transparent and fair in the eyes of the international community. But they can only do so if they themselves are convinced of the threat the coups pose and of what they stand to lose if democratic values are not upheld. That each president had unfavorable ratings may not help in stirring support for reinstating the men, but humming down on the precedence the coups set could inspire people to be more vocal about pushing for early elections. If Romanians and Paraguayans perceive the coups as direct threats to each nation’s fragile democracy and an affront to the thousands of voters who placed the ousted men in office, they could organize and act to place the government back on track. If they fail, each country will take a giant step back in their quests to become stable, free, and fair societies. The effects from international sanctions, moreover, could fall on those least responsible and even be deadly for many in the impoverished nations.
The soft coups that occurred in Paraguay and Romania are perhaps not tantamount to having armed forces step in, as in Egypt and Mali, but they pose an equally pernicious threat to the countries’ functionality. This is because they allow for increased politicization of government institutions, a phenomenon that has a profound effect on a country’s domestic and foreign policy. If a country’s highest officials are unelected and/or can be easily removed, then the government is inherently unstable and cannot be trusted to faithfully represent its population on a domestic and international stage. Corruption at lower levels has already given Paraguay and Romania a taste of this reality, slowing each country’s economic, political, and social development.
As Romania inches near the dates of Basescu’s impeachment, its government will have to face a stark choice between losing ground in its relations with the other countries and with respect to its own people or taking a step back and restructuring to ensure that future coups are avoided. The role Romanian and Paraguayan citizens play in pressuring government institutions to act transparently and according to due process will be essential for each country’s democratic development. The international community is not likely to turn a blind eye to these or any other coups riddled with political meddling; neither should the Paraguayan and Romanian people.
Faith Hanna is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Office of Development and External Relations. Photo Credit: AP Photo