Page last updated at 06:39 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 07:39 UK

'Mistimed coup' in Honduras?

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Tegucigalpa

Last Saturday night, when President Manuel Zelaya went to bed in his official residence, he must have felt at least an inkling of the loneliness of power.

(From left to right): Cuban President Raul Castro, ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Nicaragua. Photo: 29 June 2009
Mr Zelaya has found some powerful regional supporters

In the few days previously, the Supreme Court had twice accused him of acting illegally. His attorney general had said he should stand down. He had sacked his chief of defence staff. The heads of the army navy and air force had all resigned.

Despite all that, he apparently slept well.

But not for long.

He was rudely awoken before dawn as masked soldiers entered the private quarters of the man that still, at that stage, was officially their commander-in-chief.

Now the soldiers were giving the orders. The president was marched out of his house and taken to a nearby military airport. Still in his pyjamas, he was forced to board a plane.

By the time it took off, he still had no idea where he was being taken, or what his fate might be.

The destination was Costa Rica, and enforced asylum.

'No hero's welcome'

It might have seemed like his darkest hour. But President Zelaya has instead found himself an unlikely hero with some powerful champions.

He [Mr Zelaya] is the democratically elected president of Honduras. He was kidnapped by criminals
Paulina, teacher in Tegucigalpa

"President Zelaya was democratically elected. He has not completed his term," stated US President Barack Obama.

"This is a coup against us all," said Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez, who has vowed to do what he can to restore the sometime cattle rancher to power.

Mr Zelaya now says he will be returning to his home country on Thursday.

If he is expecting a hero's welcome, he might be disappointed.

The new Honduran government, which remains unrecognised by any country in the world, has said the exiled president is now a regular citizen and should expect to be arrested and imprisoned if he returns.

Popularity plummeted

But what of the Honduran people?

Recent events in Tegucigalpa, with hundreds of protesters chanting the president's name have proved that he has his fanatical supporters.

An Honduran soldier stands guards in front of the National Telecommunications Institution which has been occupied by the military following the removal of President Manuel Zelaya
Troops stormed the president's home at around dawn on Sunday

"He is the democratically elected president of Honduras. He was kidnapped by criminals," said Paulina, a primary school teacher, as she hurled insults at the soldiers currently occupying the presidential palace.

But in the weeks before he left the country, Mr Zelaya's popularity was in fact plummeting. One survey put it at about 30%.

"We saw this coming around six months ago," said Miguel, a lawyer as he watched protesters build a barricade of burning tyres in the centre of the capital.

"Zelaya, for some reason, became a radical," he said.

'Expertly planned'

Perhaps seeking inspiration from President Chavez in Venezuela, Mr Zelaya, who said Honduran democracy grossly favoured the country's wealthy elite, began to turn his attention to the constitution.

It currently allows presidents to only sit for one term of four years. Mr Zelaya's presidency was due to expire next January.

His efforts to alter the situation would appear to have been relatively modest.

Last Sunday, he was attempting to push what was in effect a referendum about whether a future referendum would take place on rewriting the constitution.

But Mr Zelaya's enemies it seemed, wanted to stop the process in its inception. And they had powerful institutions on their side: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the army.

The removal of President Zelaya was expertly planned and orchestrated.

Yet, for its proponents, it might have been disastrously mistimed.

They are now left in nominal charge of a country. Their nemesis has been turned into a symbol of Central America's long, unhappy, struggle against military dictatorship.

And questions remain as to whether, assuming it was his intention, he really could have altered the Honduran Constitution in order to prolong his rule.

Even highly popular leaders, such as Hugo Chavez, have discovered that such an undertaking is not always successful.

Might the generals and judges and politicians who decided that Manuel Zelaya had to go, now be wondering whether they would have been better off doing nothing?

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