Intense Electoral Year in Latin America

By Carlos Malamud*

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet with the leaders of her coalition, Nueva Mayoría. The Chilean presidential election of 2017 will determine the legacy of the Nueva Mayoría. / Gobierno de Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The new year will be an intense one for Latin American elections.  Although perhaps not as important as those taking place in 2018, this year’s elections will have a significant impact on the countries holding them and, in some cases, the region as a whole.

  • In Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections on February 19, the PAIS Alliance will run a slate of nominees for the first time without Rafael Correa heading its slate. The President said he’s stepping down for family reasons, but Ecuador’s economic problems, aggravated by the decline in oil prices, apparently convinced him to seal his legacy on a high note now rather than end his time in office in defeat.  The party’s presidential candidate, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, has a 10-point lead in polls over his closest competitor and has the advantage of facing an opposition divided among seven candidates, but his leadership remains uncertain.
  • In Mexico, the state governors of México, Nayarit, and Coahuila and mayor of Veracruz are up for election on June 4. The race in México state will measure the popular backing of the four parties in contention – PRI, PAN, PRD, and López Obrador’s new Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) – in the 2018 presidential election.  The older parties will begin to weed out the weaker pre-candidates.
  • Elections for half of the Argentine Congress and a third of its Senate in October will define the second half of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency. The government is confident that economic recovery will strengthen its election prospects.  A weak showing will strengthen the Peronista opposition and complicate Macri’s agenda.  The Peronistas are currently divided into three big factions – that of Sergio Massa; the “orthodox” wing headed by some provincial governors, and corruption-plagued Kircherismo grouping headed by former President Cristina Fernández.  Open, simultaneous, and obligatory primaries (known by the Spanish acronym PASO) in August will be an important test for all.
  • Chile will elect a successor to President Michelle Bachelet on November 19. Primaries in July will reveal whether the country’s two big coalitions – the center-left (including the President’s Nueva Mayoría) and the center-right – are holding, as well as the presidential candidates’ identity.  The names of former Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Ricardo Lagos are in the air, but it’s too early to know how things will play out in the environment of growing popular disaffection with politics and politicians.
  • Honduras will hold elections on November 26. Due to a Supreme Court decision permitting reelection, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández could face a challenge from ex-President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was removed from office by the Army in June 2009, running as head of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party.
  • Also in November, Bolivia will elect members of various high courts, including the Constitutional, Supreme, and Agro-Environmental Tribunals and the Magistracy Council. These elections will reveal the support President Evo Morales will have as he tries to reform the Constitution to allow himself to run for yet another term in office.

These elections in 2017 have a heavy national component but will shed light on the region’s future direction.  The success or failure of the populist projects in Ecuador and Honduras, or of President Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría in Chile, will tell us where we are and, above all, help us discern where we’re headed.

January 17, 2017

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  This article was originally published in Infolatam.

Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Honduras: President Hernández’s Mission

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez honduras 2

Photo credit: Public domain

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who last month passed the half-way point in his four-year term, has scored some important political gains, with uncertain implications for his country.

  • The Obama Administration has embraced him as a partner in the “Alliance for Prosperity,” to which it has committed $750 million year to “build a safer and more prosperous future for [Northern Triangle] citizens.” It represents a doubling of U.S. assistance.
  • In a decision Hernández said he “would respect,” last April the Honduran Constitutional Court – key members of which the Congress elected under circumstances of questionable legality when he was Congress President – allowed him and other former presidents to run for reelection. The Chairman of the Congressional budget committee last week said there “should be no doubt” that the party is committed to Hernández serving a second term.
  • He successfully parried efforts to create a copy in Honduras of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the UN-sponsored body with extensive powers in that country. The final terms of reference of the OAS-sponsored “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) aren’t as loose as he had proposed, but many of its key definitions, personnel, and funding remain highly uncertain.  OAS Secretary General Almagro’s public blessing of it was a public relations coup.
  • The Honduran Congress’s approval last week of a new 15-member Supreme Court took numerous rounds of voting – presidents traditionally get the slate approved in one vote – but his party did well enough. Allegations of bribery arose immediately.  Praising the new court, he said last Friday that he would soon launch a national dialogue on additional Constitutional reforms and on “revising the social contract of Honduras” and building “a new Honduras.”

Hernández is not without critics in Tegucigalpa and Washington – even if their attacks have not thwarted him.  Opponents claim that his desire to overturn Constitutional prohibitions on a second term was more blatant than that of former President Mel Zelaya, whose removal by the military in 2009 Hernández supported claiming that Zelaya violated the prohibition.   Hernández has admitted that his party received funds embezzled from the national Social Security agency.  The Indignados, a grassroots opposition, doesn’t have the lobbying resources that the government has, but they have mobilized massive peaceful demonstrations, and veteran Honduras watchers praise their idealism, discipline, and maturity beyond their youthfulness.

Hondurans and foreign governments often favor leaders whose appearance of power promises stability, rather than favor processes and values – such as transparency and inclusiveness – that promise more effective democratic institutions.  Hernández was elected with barely 35 percent of the vote, but his growing power, coinciding with the weakening of legislative and judicial institutions, has concentrated power on the executive.  The country arguably faces one of the most complex situations in its history, on the cusp of either difficult change, such as reducing shocking levels of impunity, or a deepening of the current crisis.  The economic and political elites who control the nation have driven it into a rut from which “more of the same” does not appear a viable way out.  Hernández won praise from the international financial community by pushing through fiscal adjustments, yet these measures increased inequality in a country where half the population lives on less than $4 a day.  Preliminary data show that austerity has brought about an increase in unemployment and underemployment, which already affected roughly half of the labor force.  A U.S. and Mexican crackdown on Central American migration has reduced one of the only options that young Hondurans fleeing poverty, violence, and impunity thought they had.  While many Hondurans may wind up accepting a President’s reelection to a non-consecutive term, Hernández’s big push for a consecutive one and his talk of a “new social contract” understandably fuels skepticism if not angst.

February 16, 2016

Lobbying Washington: Does it Work?

By Aaron T. Bell*

LatAm Lobbying

Photo credits: Jack Says Relax & AlexR. L., respectively / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results.  Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents.  Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies.  In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.

  • Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
  • In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies.  From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.”  In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
  • Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
  • More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.

A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent.  Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure.  The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped.  Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort.  MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed.  In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.

January 22, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Honduras: No Solution in Sight

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.  The following are key analytical points that were broadly accepted during the 90-minute session.

Honduras is experiencing a multi-faceted crisis – economic, political, judicial, and security– that has grown steadily worse since the 2009 coup and shows no sign of abating.

  • Economic growth (1.5 percent per capita) is too low to alleviate the country’s severe employment problem (affecting half of the working-age population) and poverty (62 percent). Recent polls indicate that some 63 percent of all Hondurans would leave the country if they could.

Violence, corruption scandals, and the steady weakening of institutions dim prospects for a turnaround.

  • The over-concentration of power in the Executive, the remilitarization of law-enforcement and other security services, and the politicization of the judiciary have undermined what democratic foundation Honduras had built since the last military government stepped down in 1980. The economic and political elites, as well as the media they control, have further stifled political discourse.
  • The Sala Constitucional of the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Tribunal have been stacked to tightly control preparations for elections scheduled for November 2017, apparently with the intention of ensuring the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The Honduran political class lacks the will to root out corruption, and is united in resisting developing the capacity and programs to do so.

  • The embezzlement of more than $300 million from the Social Security Institute – funneling part of these funds to the ruling National Party and a variety of fronts – led to the flight of the investigating fiscal (who left the country because of death threats to himself and his family) but little else. Indeed, the most significant law-enforcement actions, such as the indictment of members of the Rosenthal family on money-laundering charges, have come from the United States. Some 80 percent of crimes in Honduras go uninvestigated and unpunished; some reports put the figure as high as 96-98 percent.
  • A Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Honduras (CICIH), adapted from the successful CICIG model in Guatemala, would be a healthy way of addressing ongoing impunity while building investigative and prosecutorial institutions. The economic and political elites solidly oppose it.  Even if Honduras accepted a CICIH, alone it probably would not be a silver bullet.
  • The OAS’s planned “Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) – announced in late September jointly with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez – shows little promise of success. Its mandate will be to diagnose problems and write reports, not take action or facilitate a serious, inclusive national dialogue.

Opposition to the current Honduran government is strong and growing, but it has not yet institutionalized.

  • Peaceful marches organized by the Indignados and other organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of citizens outraged by government corruption and its inability to provide even basic citizen security. Among the masses have been an unprecedented number of middle-class and upper-middle-class persons – not seen during previous crises.
  • Opposition groups are still struggling, however, to coalesce into a viable, institutionalized political force. Sustaining effective leadership and overcoming pressure from the government and Honduras’s two traditional parties are difficult challenges for them.

There are no magic or quick solutions to the crisis.

  • Any solution would have many moving parts, including recognition by elites that their own assets are threatened by the deepening chaos. The government will have to be held accountable for corruption.  The judiciary will have to be strengthened and made independent.  The military will have to return to the barracks.  The media will have to be professionalized.  Civil society will have to be empowered.
  • The U.S.-sponsored “Alliance for Prosperity” is unlikely to help Honduras – and could make things worse if it doesn’t challenge the status quo. Honduran observers believe that the $250-plus million dollars from the program should focus on deep change – the product of a broad national dialogue – and should be conditioned on deep reforms, rather than working with just the sitting government, which has shown no willingness to reform.
  • U.S. cooperation in counternarcotics and other security operations might in some cases expose partnered services to U.S. respect for human rights and democratic institutions, but the resources transferred in the process also serve to strengthen them and make them more independent of civilian authority.

October 15, 2015

* Correction: The first sentence of the article originally stated “CLALS and the Inter-American Dialogue this week hosted a conversation on the crisis in Honduras with experts Hugo Noé Pino, of the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, and Carlos Ponce, of Freedom House, and a dozen speakers from among over 80 participants.” It was edited to clarify that “about a dozen of some 80 participants spoke up.”

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Honduras: Dare Anyone Criticize?

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez Honduras

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision last week by the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court to legalize presidential reelection appears to have benefited a man – current President Juan Orlando Hernández – whose political fortunes got a shot in the arm from the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya for proposing a constitutional assembly to consider just such an action.  A Liberal Party magistrate said he wanted to recant his vote the next day, but the ruling party published the decision in the Gaceta Oficial before he could.  The Supreme Court, ruling in favor of petitions by former Nationalist President Rafael Callejas and several members of Hernández’s National Party, repealed two key articles of the Honduran Constitution, including one that says “the citizen who has served as the head of the executive power cannot be president or presidential candidate.”  Callejas immediately announced that he was resurrecting his Callejista movement, called MONARCA, which won him the presidency in 1990, and his campaign literature appeared in the streets of Tegucigalpa soon after.

The Court did not explicitly overturn Article 4 of the Constitution, which states that an “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the republic is obligatory.”  That action reportedly will fall to the National Party-led Congress, but President Hernández is almost universally seen as the big winner from the Court decision, culminating his effort to continue as President.  After the coup that removed Zelaya from power, Hernández had a hand in congressional strategies to give a constitutional and legal framework – widely debunked – to Zelaya’s military ouster and later, while serving as president of the Honduran Congress and while campaigning for president, Hernández engineered the removal of four of the five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and replaced them with more sympathetic judges.  He subsequently had a role in selecting a replacement for the fifth, who became Attorney General – making for a court unanimously indebted to him.  (He was sworn in as national President in January 2014.)  Reacting to the court decision last week, Hernández noted that “reelection is something that is a general rule around the world … Prohibition of it is the exception … [and] Honduras has to make progress.”  His opponents have vowed to fight the repeal.  Leaders of the Partido de Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) have accused the justices of “betrayal of the fatherland.”  One said the court “guaranteed the impunity” of the Hernández government, but the opposition’s legislative strategies have failed before.

Representing Central America’s most violent and most corrupt nation, President Hernández is seen in Washington as essential to success of U.S. policy in Central America and initiatives such as the “Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle.”  With a request for a billion dollars on its way to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration can ill afford to point out Hernández’s hypocrisy for doing what he condemned former President Zelaya for trying to do in 2009.  Political inconveniences aside, the political cynicism and tensions that his and former President Callejas’s maneuvering will incite in violence-ravaged Honduras can hardly be seen as helpful to the goals of good governance and democratic consolidation that all profess.  When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engineered a similar judgment by his Supreme Court in 2009, allowing him to run for an additional term, the State Department did not mince words about its “concern” for its implications.  Hernández, in contrast, was in Washington securing support for funding when his court announced its decision.  The U.S. Southern Command’s new task force of some 250 Marines is expected to arrive in Honduras and begin training of security forces involved in “fighting the drug traffickers.”

May 1, 2015

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.