TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – A majority of Honduran lawmakers on Wednesday voted against reinstating President Manuel Zelaya, shrugging off international pressure four months after a coup that has isolated one of the poorest countries in the Americas.
With voting still under way, more than two-thirds of lawmakers had voted not to return the deposed president to power for the remainder of his term, which ends Jan. 27, as Washington and many Latin American governments had urged.
That was more than the simple majority needed in the 128-member, single-chamber Congress for the vote against restoring Zelaya to succeed. Only 10 lawmakers had voted to reinstate him Wednesday evening.
The congressional president had not formally announced an outcome.
Zelaya himself, who listened to the proceedings from his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, had said he wouldn't return for a token two months even if asked. He urged other governments not to restore ties with the incoming administration of Porfirio Lobo, who won Sunday's presidential election.
Honduras' interim leaders have proven remarkably resistant to diplomatic arm-twisting since the June 28 coup, rejecting near universal demands that Zelaya be restored to his office before the previously scheduled election. Now lawmakers have even snubbed international demands that he be allowed to serve the final two months of his presidency.
Lawmaker after Lawmaker insisted Wednesday that they were right the first time when they voted to oust Zelaya for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referndum on changing the constitution. That vote happened hours after soldiers stormed into Zelaya's residence and flew him into exile in his pajamas.
Zelaya opponents accuse him of trying to hang on to power by lifting a ban on presidential-re-election, as his leftist ally Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela. Zelaya denies such intentions.
"My vote is (a lesson) for anyone who pretends to perpetuate himself in power. My vote is so that my son can look at me and say 'Dad you defended democracy," said Antonio Rivera of Lobo's conservative National Party.
Lawmakers loyal to Zelaya expressed dismay.
"How can we call this a constitutional succession when the president's residence was shot at and he was taken from his home in pajamas?" said Cesar Ham, a lawmaker from a small leftist party that supports Zelaya. "This is embarrassing. He was assaulted, kidnapped and ousted by force of arms from the presidency."
While legislators debated, 300 Zelaya supporters protested behind police lines outside Congress. Zelaya had won over many poor Hondurans with his initiative to rewrite the constitution, promising he would shake-up a political system dominated by two traditional parties with little ideological differences and influenced by a few wealthy families.
Congress is dominated by Zelaya's own Liberal Party, which largely turned against him in the dispute over changing the constitution. Many Liberals voted against him Wednesday.
The Supreme Court and three other institutions submitted opinions to Congress all recommending that Zelaya not be reinstated because he faces charges of abusing power and other infractions.
Honduras' interim leaders insist the victory by Lobo, a wealthy rancher, in the regularly scheduled presidential election shows their country's democracy is intact.
However, many Latin American countries, especially those led by left-leaning governments, said recognizing the election would amount to legitimizing Central America's first coup in 20 years.
"A new form of coup d'etat has emerged," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said during a televised speech Wednesday. "Just as the money from drug trafficking is laundered, these elections were similar. It's laundering a coup d'etat in a shameless way before the world."
That stance wasn't unanimous in the region, though.
President Barack Obama's administration urged Zelaya's reinstatement but it stopped short of making that a condition for recognizing Lobo's government. Costa Rica, Peru, Panama and Colombia backed the U.S. view.
Zelaya's reinstatement was not required by a U.S.-brokered pact that was signed by both the deposed leader and interim President Roberto Micheletti. The pact requires only that a unity government be created for the remainder of Zelaya's term, leaving the decision on restoring Zelaya to office up to Congress.
Zelaya, who has been holed up at the Brazilian Embassy since he sneaked back into Honduras on Sept. 21, listened to the debate on the radio, said his adviser, Russell Tome. The deposed leader had not said what his next steps would be, although he insisted he had no plans to seek asylum abroad.