Did Honduras deal weaken Zelaya?

What first seemed like a victory for ousted President Manuel Zelaya could become a setback for him depending on what – and when – the Honduran Congress decides.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya receives his hat at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, on Tuesday. The leadership of Honduras' Congress meets Tuesday to begin consideration of an accord that could reinstate Zelaya, but no date has been set for bringing the issue to the floor.
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When ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and his successor, Roberto Micheletti, signed a deal last week to resolve the crisis that has crippled the Central American nation for four months, Mr. Zelaya was jubilant.

He told his supporters he expected to be back in office in a week's time.

But as the Honduran Congress, now the ultimate arbiter, prepares to decide whether that will indeed be the case the political waters are in many ways murkier than they have been since Zelaya was toppled on June 28. What first seemed like a victory for Zelaya and the diplomats who secured the deal could become a setback.

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"Everyone was congratulating the victory of diplomacy on Friday," says Miguel Calix, a political analyst in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. "If you read the deal carefully, Zelaya is weaker now than he was a week ago; the deal does not ensure that Zelaya will be president again."

Under the terms of the agreement, which works off of an earlier proposal by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and brokered last week by US diplomat Thomas Shannon, a national unity government and truth commission are to be formed while the international community is asked to reverse suspensions in aid and recognize the Nov. 29 electoral process. But Zelaya's return to office is complicated and far from certain – for now. Under the terms of last week's deal, Zelaya can return to office only if Congress approves. There is no timeline for Congress to vote, even though presidential elections are less than four weeks away.

Here are two scenarios for the days to come:

Congress could vote to restore Zelaya to the presidency.

This is the scenario that the international community has been demanding all along – threatening not to recognize Nov. 29 elections if Zelaya is not restored. It would be a diplomatic coup for the US, who got both sides to the negotiating table after talks stalled for months.

However, the Honduran Congress backed Zelaya's ouster. Though the presidential contenders may broker a deal for Zelaya's return so that elections are recognized and aid restored, many lawmakers remain firmly opposed to Zelaya, who they accuse of trying to alter the Constitution to scrap presidential term limits. Zelaya denies this. And his supporters say they fear that Congress won't solve the issue quickly. "They are already showing signs of stalling," says Omar Rivera, a member of Zelaya's former government.

On Monday José Alfredo Saavedra, who heads the Honduran Congress, said that he had not yet decided when legislators will be called back into session, despite demands from diplomats not to delay the vote.

Mr. Rivera says Congress could wait until after elections to make a decision. "If they do delay, there will be problems," says Rivera, who adds that Zelaya will not recognize a national unity government to be set up this week if a decision on his return is not first reached.

Congress could reject Zelaya's return to office.

Many observers are wondering how the US, which has hailed the deal as an "historic agreement," will react if Zelaya is not voted back into power or if Honduran lawmakers stall.

For now, they have put their support behind the electoral process. Victor Rico, political affairs secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), told the Associated Press that "the United States and the OAS will accompany Honduras in the elections."

Recognition of elections is a relief to many Hondurans, and for many observers it's the key to moving past the political crisis.

"[The deal] provides a path forward so that preparations for the election can get underway in a very serious way," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultant group based in New York. "What this does is it legitimizes the election. … I think that continues to be the key."

But focusing on the election as the way out of the political crisis is not a solution in the eyes of Zelaya supporters, who will likely intensify their street protests if Zelaya is not restored to office. Many say that the US gains by being able to recognize the vote. "But we feel cheated by the US," says Rivera. "They do not care about the reinstatement of Zelaya, they just care about the elections."

While Honduras is dependent on the US more than many other nations, it still remains unclear how the world community will react if Congress does not vote to reinstate Zelaya.

If Zelaya is not reinstated, says Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica and now at the Brookings Institution, "you have no reversal of a coup d'etat," he says. He says that the world community would likely reject that scenario. "The issue will become all the more complicated," he says. "The champagne corks popped out too early."

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