Honduran Election Crisis Marks New Phase in Country’s Agony

By CLALS Staff

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Yesterday’s election in Honduras was peaceful and orderly – the 61 percent voter turnout forced polls to remain open an extra hour – but anomalies in the vote count have cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of the results. Although most polls for months indicated that Libre candidate Xiomara Castro had a several-point lead over National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández (and a few polls showed they were in a dead heat), the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said the Nationalist beat Castro by more than a five percentage point  margin – 34.2 percent to 28.6 percent. Castro and other candidates had repeatedly claimed the National Party activist who heads the TSE (which has no representative from the nontraditional parties or Libre) would skew the results and, citing exit polls, she has alleged that fraud tainted up to 20 percent of yesterday’s votes. The TSE’s claim that, of more than 1.6 million ballots cast, there were no null or blank votes – when party poll watchers reported many – has also drawn attacks on its credibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ambassador and the European Union observer team hastily declared the process transparent and clean.

Hernández and Castro have both declared victory – promising high tensions in at least the short term. Castro is the wife of former President Mel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup in 2009, and has assembled a broad and deep popular base in Libre outside of Honduras’s two traditional parties. The government, military, economy and, importantly, news media are all dominated by elites that have long resisted the sort of popular movement she has built.  Few observers believe that, particularly with U.S. endorsement of the election results, Castro’s demands for a recount or other review of the results will be heeded.

If the results had been seen as accurate and fair, the election could have helped Honduras close the dark chapter of tensions and violence that started when the military forced President Zelaya into exile three and a half years ago. If Hernández is allowed to take office, his low vote – barely a third of all votes cast – alone promises a prolonged crisis like that which has plagued current President Lobo since his inauguration, a period during which both criminal and political violence has skyrocketed, public finances have deteriorated alarmingly, and political polarization has reached unprecedented heights. Under a Hernández presidency, the crisis may become even worse. Castro ran a campaign explicitly committed to peace and reconciliation and consistently urged her supporters to give democratic process a chance. She has never shown even the slightest inclination to call her supporters to violence, but popular anger has festered since the 2009 coup and there’s no guarantee that some frustration will not spill into the streets.  The surge in right-wing violence in Honduras since the coup – reminiscent of death squad activities in other Central American countries in the 1980s – has persuaded many protesters to keep their heads down, but this election may lead to desperate acts which the death squads will be eager to respond to, threatening a spiral of violence the hemisphere’s second-poorest country can ill-afford.

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.