Leading article: Guns and democracy

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The Independent Online

The ousting of the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the country's military at the weekend has been condemned by many members of the international community as an affront to democracy. But despite a natural distaste for any military coup, it is possible that the army might have actually done Honduran democracy a service.

President Zelaya was planning a referendum to give him power to alter the constitution. But the proposed alterations were perilously vague, with opponents accusing Mr Zelaya of wanting to scrap the four-year presidential term limit. The country's courts and congress had called the vote illegal.

This is an increasingly familiar turn of events in emerging democracies: an elected leader, facing the end of his time in office, decides that the country cannot do without him and resorts to dubious measures to retain power. The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, won a referendum in February altering his country's constitution and abolishing term limits. He now talks about ruling beyond 2030.

Elected leaders who refuse to give up power have been the curse of sub-Saharan Africa for decades. Some have resorted to bribery, intimidation, or simple fraud – whatever it takes to retain power. That depressing pattern was what prompted the wealthy Sudanese mobile phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim to offer a prize of $5m a year to African leaders who voluntarily leave office. There are increasing examples of African states that have managed to combine free elections with transfers of power; Mozambique, Senegal and Ghana are among those that have shown it is possible, and are stronger and more attractive for investors as a result. But there are others, such as Nigeria and Kenya, which have highlighted the fact that voting and democracy do not amount to the same thing.

Honduras underlines that free votes only count if accompanied by a confident parliament, an independent judiciary, an unfettered media and impartial electoral monitors. The true test of a democracy's health is not the holding of elections. It is the possibility of power peaceably changing hands.