Honduras: Will Political Reforms Go Anywhere?

Honduras Highway Sign

Honduras by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images / Picserver.org / Creative Commons

By Eugenio Sosa*

Honduras’s long-running political crisis and the realignment of its political parties have given rise to broad discussion of political and electoral reforms, but resistance from the political parties – including the relatively new Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) Party – appears likely to stymie significant change.  Honduran civil society groups increasingly believe that only through political and electoral reforms will the country move toward democracy.  Holding elections is an important starting point, reform advocates say, but deepening democracy requires reducing the monopoly of the political parties.  The configuration of the parties has changed significantly since the coup d’état in June 2009; the century-old “bipartisanship” of the National and Liberal Parties has been shaken up and become more volatile.  LIBRE has moved to the front line, and smaller players, like the Partido Anticorrupción (PAC), have faded.  Reformers argue that this realignment affords the country an opportunity to undertake reforms that cut across the country’s institutions and processes.

  • Depoliticizing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and making it a truly independent and autonomous body to supervise elections. The current TSE has fallen far short of its legal requirements to ensure, without prejudice, to enfranchise all citizens. 
  • Professionalizing and depoliticizing the National Registry of Persons – removing the partisan activists who dominate it today and directing it to issue identification cards without political influence. Observers agree that 30 percent of voters on the current lists have deceased or left the country.  Other citizens’ names have been mysteriously dropped from voter rolls or been lost while changing domicile.  Similarly, the country needs a complete, honest census.
  • Allowing regular citizens to staff election tables in polling places. They should be chosen based on clear criteria, such as their contributions to society.  In 2013 and 2017, credentials were being bought and sold with party funds, totally undermining observers’ credibility.
  • Establishing second round balloting when no candidate wins an absolute majority. The country’s shift away from a two-party system has significantly increased the chance that a president would be elected with a percentage of votes below the abstention rate.  A runoff between the top two candidates will give the victor greater legitimacy.

Other important reforms are receiving less attention.  Laws on transparency and accountability in campaign finances, such as the Law on Clean Politics implemented in 2017, have not had significant results so far, but discussion of ways to give them teeth has been limited.  Neither is there much talk about how the incumbent candidate benefits from access to public resources, including access to the national networks, or about the biases of privately owned media, which slant coverage and charge different rates for advertising depending on their preferences.  Guarantees of political participation by sectors traditionally excluded from representation and government, such as women, the indigenous, and youth, are also largely off the table.

The urgency for reform, obvious since the coup in June 2009, has surged since the contested elections in November 2017, during which the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in the face of evidence of electoral fraud.  Honduras is now living the paradox of a President serving a second term that is still prohibited by the Constitution.  Some issues, such as re-election, demand serious national debate and may have to be resolved by plebiscite or through a National Constituent Assembly.

  • Despite the broad base of the organizations proposing reforms, the success of any initiatives will depend on the views, limitations, and vetoes imposed by the three main parties. Even LIBRE, the newcomer that previously challenged the status quo, sometimes appears to be buying into existing systems and could go soft on reform.  As a result, one possible outcome could be that certain reforms are implemented in form – such as modernization of the National Registry of Persons – but the parties retain their influence over the office’s magistrates and personnel.  In addition, neither of the three main political forces appears interested in allowing authentic citizen control over voting tables on election day. 
  • While the need for reform is arguably deeper than at any time since the current Constitution was approved in 1982, and while the proposals for moving forward are constructive and mature, the prospects for change appear limited. The configuration of the country’s political parties has changed, but their priorities and behavior have not. 

January 22, 2018

*Eugenio Sosa is a sociologist and senior analyst at the Centro de Estudio para la Democracia (CESPAD), in Tegucigalpa.  This article is adapted from his essay on the CESPAD website.

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.

Costa Rica: Losing Faith in Democratic Institutions?

By Fulton Armstrong

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Costa Rica is approaching February’s presidential and legislative elections with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, if not with dread.  Most international surveys present Costa Rica as the “world’s happiest country” (the Happy Planet Index), or in the elite club of the world’s “full democracies” (ahead of Japan and Belgium in The Economist’s list), or as the 48th least-corrupt country (out of 174 reviewed by Transparency International).  The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, and the country’s access to foreign direct investment is blunting the impact of the government’s fiscal deficit of about 5 percent of GDP.  Crime is on the rise, but Ticos know that their pain is small compared to that wreaked by the narcos and maras in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Reputable polls show, however, that Costa Ricans are gloomy about the state of their political institutions and specifically about their upcoming elections.  According to polls, about 32 percent of the country’s 3 million eligible voters say they plan to abstain, citing corruption, a lack of leadership, insensitivity to the average citizen, and unemployment as reasons to reject not just the candidates but also the political elite in general.  The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Luis Antonio Sobrado, acknowledged last month that the election was taking place in the context of “citizen uneasiness … and a lot of anger with politics and politicians.”  Abstentionism was high in 2006 (35 percent) and 2010 (32 percent), but commentators sense a much deeper and darker alienation this time around.  A columnist lamented that the “multiparty” system has been replaced by “atomization,” and another said the political parties have “disconnected themselves from the national reality.”

Further reflecting the malaise, President Chinchilla’s support has nosedived – a July poll showed only 9 percent of voters said she was “good” and none said “very good” – and pundits cite her ineffectiveness as the cause of collapsed highways, dengue outbreaks, and other calamities.  The nominee of her Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), Johnny Araya, is widely thought to have an edge in February, but his 12 years as mayor of San José have coincided with a deterioration in the city’s infrastructure and security, and his personal lifestyle (including five marriages) may be a factor in popular skepticism.  The government’s recent announcement that it will contract the services of 4,125 new employees in 2014, mostly in the education sector, drew immediate criticism as yet another example of political patronage to influence the race.

The self-doubt seems at this point indicative of concerns about Chinchilla and the crop of candidates, rather than a rejection of democracy.  Costa Ricans comparing themselves with the rest of Central America still feel good about themselves, and the green image that eco-tourists reinforce is comforting.  But crumbling infrastructure – including collapsing bridges and the exorbitant cost of repeated repairs – and shocking crimes, such as the recent assassination of an environmentalist protecting turtles on a Caribbean beach, fuel the sort of doubts that only effective political and economic leadership can quell. 

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.