General elections were held in Honduras on November 24, 2013. All elective offices in the country were renewed on the same day: the President, all 128 members of the unicameral Congress (Congreso), the country’s 20 members of the Central American Parliament and all 298 municipal governments (corporaciones municipales).
The President, the country’s head of state and government, is elected to a single non-renewable four-year term by FPTP with no runoff. Unlike in some countries which ban consecutive terms, no former President may ever run for the presidency after the completion of his term. Congressmen are elected by proportional representation in the country’s 18 departments. As is the case in a lot of Latin American countries, despite constitutional division of powers between the three branches of government, the executive branch has come to dominate the two other branches as well, leaving the presidency as the most important office in the country and Congress largely ineffective and subservient.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, with the four lowest HDI (0.632), the third lowest GDP per capita ($4,7000) and one of the most unequal countries in the world (57.7 Gini index, 9th in the world). About 60% of the population live in poverty. Honduras is also exceptionally violent: in 2012, it had the highest homicide rate per 100,000 at 91.6 – in comparison, Mexico, often depicted as an exceptionally violent “failed state” had a homicide rate of 23.7.
Poverty, huge inequalities, a weak economy (historically dependent on bananas), a history of violence and tumultuous relations with its neighbors and the US have been both causes and effects of the weakness of the Honduran state and the difficulty of creating a stable democracy. In the nineteenth century, Central American politics were marked by clashes between Liberals and Conservatives, whose differences were more often than not the result of warring caudillos than any major ideological differences (not to say that they didn’t exist). Honduran politics from independence until the 1900s saw a succession of Liberal and Conservative presidents, many of whom were imposed by the governments of neighboring nation, oftentimes either Nicaragua or Guatemala.
To this day, Honduras has undergone the least transition of all the Central American republics: until this year, Honduras was pretty much a two-party system dominated by the two parties which have dominated since independence: the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal) and the National Party (Partido Nacional). Unlike El Salvador, Guatemala or Nicaragua, Honduras did not suffer from brutal civil wars between the 1970s and 1990s.
Honduras is something of the quintessential ‘banana republic’ in Central America. At the turn of the twentieth century, American-owned fruit companies – most notably United Fruit (now Chiquita Brands) and Standard Fruit (now Dole Foods) – came to acquire significant economic, social but also political power in Honduras. Successive Honduran governments granted extremely concessions and advantages to American fruit companies, who intervened in the various intrigues of Honduran politics over the years to remove presidents which damaged their interests or had favoured their competitors. The United States began taking an active role in Central American politics, aimed at ensuring political stability (reducing coups, wars between the neighboring countries) and protecting their economic interests. This system created a triangular alliance between a local elite (unlike in other Latin American countries, the colonial elite controlled politics but their accumulation of wealth was less impressive), foreign capital and the military. Prior to 1922, the military was largely used a political tool by civilian politicians and their parties to assert power, suppress opposition and serve political-electoral roles.
National Party strongman Tiburcio Carías Andino, who served as President between 1933 and 1949, promoted the improvement of the military (hitherto a fairly ragtag force used as a political instrument) and led policies favouring the foreign banana companies. He cracked down on political opposition and opposed strikes and demands for better wages and working conditions in the plantations. The 1950s, however, began a turbulent period marked by growing activism, aborted attempts at reform and an expanded political role for the military. In October 1954, Liberal reformist candidate Ramón Villeda Morales won the presidential election, but the Nationals blocked the confirmation of his election in Congress and in the Supreme Court (since Villeda Morales lacked an absolute majority, it was up to Congress to choose a president). As the outgoing National president fled the country to Miami, his Vice President assumed power and formed a ‘national government’. By 1956, this ‘national government’ had collapsed as the President sought to replace the existing parties with his own and cracked down on the Liberals. In October 1956, the military overthrew him.
The 1956 coup marked a watershed moment in Honduran history, as it was the first time the military was acting on its own as an institution rather than as instrument of a political party or of an individual leader. This was the culmination of the professionalization of the military which had begun, with American support (most officers received American training), under President Tiburcio Carías Andino. The military had become the only chance for upwards mobility for middle and lower classes, rather than than an elite institution for the sons of the elite. Therefore, the military took a more independent stance from the political elite; officers and recruits took immense pride in the military’s honour and dignity and came to look down on civilian politicians.
Ramón Villeda Morales won the 1957 election and his new Liberal administration undertook several major efforts to improve and modernize Honduran life. With IMF and World Bank funds, he began work on a road from the capital to the Caribbean coast, created a national public education system and passed a new labour code. His program of agrarian reform, however, worried landowners and foreign capital. Talks of expropriating uncultivated land owned by American banana companies concerned Washington, and Villeda Morales was forced to back down and temper his agrarian reform projects after the Kennedy administration intervened. Villeda Morales was certainly not a Castro (he broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961) and not even a Jacobo Arbenz, so the Kennedy administration and the US government had little incentive to remove him. However, when he created a ‘Civil Guard’ independent from the military and under direct presidential control, the military – heretofore loyal – became increasingly restless. To make matters worse, the Liberals chose Modesto Rodas Alvarado, a partisan and ideologically left-leaning figure hostile to the military (he wanted to abolish the military, like Costa Rica), as their 1963 presidential candidate. Before the election could be held (in which the Liberals were the favourites), the military stepped in and seized power. The United States opposed the coup, and the Kennedy White House cut off military aid and denied recognition to the new military regime. In 1964, however, the Johnson administration recognized the regime and reopened the tap for military aid.
The military would rule Honduras from 1963 to 1982, with the exception of a brief stint of civilian democracy between 1971 and 1972. Oswaldo López Arellano, the most prominent commander of the 1963 coup, became the longest-serving military ruler this period, serving as President between 1963 and 1971 and again between 1972 and 1975. Backed by the National Party, the military turned back their predecessor’s agrarian reform and cracked down on leftist opposition. Increasingly tough living conditions for poor rural families and peasants, with the decline of small-scale subsistence farming and the rising number of landless labourers, further increased rural activism – already rather high in Honduras, which had suffered a major general strike in banana plantations back in 1954.
In June-July 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a very brief (and futile) conflict, although one made memorable because it has come to be known as the ‘Soccer War’. The real cause of the conflict was a border dispute and an influx of undocumented Salvdoran immigrants which became the scapegoats for Honduran economic woes and rising unrest. The detonator was an elimination round between both nations in late June 1969 during the qualifications for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. After a Honduran win on home ground, the second game, played in San Salvador, turned violent and anti-Salvadoran violence broke out as a result in Honduras. After El Salvador won a play-off game 3-2 in extra time, Honduras broke diplomatic relations and war broke out in July. Fighting lasted only six days, achieving nothing except loses on both sides and the collapse of the nascent Central American Common Market.
Civilian government returned briefly following a democratic election in 1971, won by the Nationals who had previously agreed to share power with the Liberals. The Nationals, however, had lost the Liberals’ support by mid-1972, and the military reclaimed power in December 1972. Although led by López Arellano, the experience of the Soccer War and the widespread civilian support for the national war effort, had pushed the military towards more socially reformist views. Therefore, the new military government instituted a far-reaching agrarian reform program. In 1975, López Arellano was forced to step down by fellow officers after revelations that he had received over a million dollar in bribes from United Brands (ex-United Fruits) in return for repealing an export tax on bananas. A more conservative wing of the military took over and slowed progress on agrarian reform.
Partly bowing to American pressure, the military regime allowed for a return to civilian rule, free elections and a new constitution. The Liberals won congressional elections in 1980 and their candidate, Roberto Suazo Córdova, won presidential elections held that following year. The 1982 constitution, still in place today, included several clauses to limit military power and prevent military officers from becoming president. However, in the early years, the military remained a very powerful force in Honduran politics.
Honduras was trying to set up a civilian democracy at a time when Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were all in the midst of bloody decades-long civil wars, which took a broader dimension in the 1970s and 1980s with the Cold War and Soviet/Cuban support for leftist guerrilla movements. Tegucigalpa sought to maintain neutrality in the face of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran conflicts, but the Liberal government soon came to find the Nicaraguan Sandinistas as a subversive force which threatened Honduras. Until 1984, the military held incredible power in Suazo Córdova’s government, under the leadership of army commander General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez. Álvarez was a pro-American and anti-communist hardliner who publicly declared that the country would “fight to the death” against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Honduras became awash with American military aid and ‘assistance’ in the early 1980s, with military aid increasing from $3 million to $31 million between 1980 and 1982. The US began to use Honduras as a crucial launching pad for Contra attacks against Nicaragua. General Álvarez was given a blank check by the president to carry out a smaller-scale domestic ‘dirty war’ against the weak left-wing guerrilla groups in Honduras, which were funded by the Nicaraguan government. Human rights groups and a former military intelligence chief who disliked Álvarez claimed that the military had organized death squads to carry out extralegal murders of leftist opponents; most today agree that the military was responsible for gross violations of human rights in the 1980s.
Álvarez was removed from command of the armed forces by rival nationalistic and isolationist officers, incensed at his decision to allow the US military to train Salvadoran troops in Honduras and Álvarez’s move to centralize power and decision-making in the military. With Álvarez out of the picture, the Honduran government distanced itself from the US military and intelligence services, albeit remaining very much pro-American. President Suazo Córdova, very much effaced before 1984, began to fancy himself as a caudillo and tried to intervene in the nomination of his successor, sparking a political crisis with Congress which was resolved by the intervention of the military as an arbiter between both parties. In 1985, José Azcona, a Liberal opponent of the outgoing president, was elected to the presidency.
Azcona distanced himself further from the American military and claimed he would do what was necessary to remove the Contras from Honduran territory. However, Honduras remained very much enmeshed in the Nicaraguan conflict, with Sandinista incursions in Honduran territory to root out the Contras and occasional clashes with Honduran troops. With the end of the Cold War and the Central American civil wars, American interest in Honduras briefly dissipated and military aid from the US fell.
Honduras stands out from its neighbours in that it never faced a bloody civil war during the Cold War. Leftist groups never gained much following in Honduras. Analysts have tried to explain the lack of a civil conflict in Honduras by the conservative nature of Honduran society, inconducive to a revolutionary uprising. Others argued that the society is characterized by a network of interlocking interest groups and political organizations that have reconciled conflicts that could have turned violent. The Honduran upper class has not been particularly cohesive and more liberal sectors proved willing participate in an open dialogue and form alliances with other sectors or classes
The Nationals, led by Rafael Leonardo Callejas, won the presidency in 1989. Callejas’ administration led neoliberal structural adjustment policies prescribed by the IMF which led to a wave of social protests and rising poverty. The austerity policies were continued by successive Liberal and National governments. The Liberals, led by Carlos Roberto Reina, returned to power in 1994 and struggled to deal with a weak economy and a military which resisted presidential efforts to crack down on military collusion with drug lords and investigate human rights abuses. A much-feared military security force was disbanded and a civilian national police force was created, with little result in the fight against narcotrafficking and only minor improvements in their human rights record. Another conservative Liberal, Carlos Flores, succeeded Reina in 1998. The country was left crippled with Hurricane Mitch in the fall of 1998, which claimed the lives of over 14,000 Hondurans and cost over $3 billion in damages.
Ricardo Maduro, an American-educated technocrat, won the presidency for the Nationals in 2001. Maduro pursued pro-business conservative economic policies, notably adhering to CAFTA, a free trade agreement between the US, the Dominican Republic and Central American countries. His economic policies were seen as relatively successful, even if poverty remained intact at high levels.
Manuel Zelaya, a Liberal, narrowly won the 2005 presidential election and took office in January 2006. By the summer of 2009, Zelaya had taken a sharp turn to the left, distancing the country from Washington and building close relations Chávez’s Venezuela and other left-wing nations in Latin America. In October 2008, for example, Honduras joined ALBA – the leftist organization which includes Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua (Ecuador and four small Caribbean islands have since joined). Zelaya’s leftist policies met with strong opposition from the conservative elites, including from the right-wing of the Liberal Party.
In June 2009, Zelaya declared his intentions to hold a referendum asking voters if a binding referendum to call a constituent assembly should be held in the November 2009 elections. Behind the legalese and rhetoric, most agreed that a constituent assembly would likely bring up the issue of presidential reelection, strictly prohibited by the current constitution and something of a sacrosanct value in Honduras like in other Latin American countries (such as Mexico). Congress banned Zelaya’s proposed referendum, a prohibition which Zelaya conveniently ignored and proceeded to dismiss the military Chief of Staff, who had opposed Zelaya’s plans. The Supreme Court stepped in to invalidate Zelaya’s dismissal of the military commander, and the following day it indicted Zelaya on charges of treason, abuse of authority and usurpation of authority. On June 28, the day the vote was to be held, the military arrested Zelaya and exiled him to Costa Rica. The Congress, on fairly flimsy constitutional grounds, deposed Zelaya and named Roberto Micheletti, the Liberal President of Congress who had opposed Zelaya, as interim president until the end of the legal term in January 2010.
The new government said that it was only deposing a president who had violated the constitution and defended the legality of the process, although some later said that sending Zelaya out of the country was a mistake. Zelaya, his supporters and the vast majority of the international community – the US included – decried Zelaya’s ouster as a coup d’état. In early July, the OAS suspended Honduras. Among the major nations, only Israel immediately recognized Micheletti’s government; all other countries withheld recognition from the new government.
The military was accused of serious human rights abuses during the coup and its aftermath, with numerous reports of arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force, indiscriminate murders, beatings and sexual violence. The de facto government restricted civil and political liberties, imposing arbitrary curfews, violently suppressing pro-Zelaya rallies, threatening journalists and media outlets and severely restricting freedom of assembly. Micheletti had given free rein to the military to act without regard for human rights and civil liberties.
Elections held in late November 2009 were won by the National Party’s candidate, Porfirio Lobo, by a wide margin – 56.6% to 38% for Liberal candidate Elvin Santos, Zelaya’s former Vice President who had broken with him. Lobo’s margin was the largest margin of victory for any party in any election since the restoration of democracy. Turnout was only about 50%, after Zelaya – who had since September 2009 taken refuge at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa – called on supporters to boycott the poll. The few foreign observers judged the poll to be free and fair. The strongest supporters of Zelaya’s government – Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil or Argentina – continued to refuse to recognize the election. However, the US, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Canada, Japan and most of the EU ultimately recognized the election and restored normal diplomatic relations. Some nations such as Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and Brazil which had earlier withheld recognition from the newly-elected government eventually recognized Lobo’s government. In 2011, the OAS readmitted Honduras, with only Ecuador voting against.
Before taking office in January 2011, Lobo agreed to Zelaya’s safe passage to the Dominican Republic. In May 2011, Lobo and Zelaya signed an agreement which allowed the deposed president to return to Honduras as corruption charges against him were dropped. However, the government gave no support to an independent Truth Commission which found the 2009 coup to be illegal, and in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled against the prosecution of six generals charged with overthrowing and exiling Zelaya.
Lobo’s presidency has largely been assessed to have been unsuccessful if not a complete disaster. His largest failure has been security: as mentioned in the introduction, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world (91.6/100,000 people) as the country as become the latest transit point for illegal drugs from South America to North America, after increasing law enforcement and US DEA squeezed drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico. Drug trafficking has been a major issue in Honduras since the 1980s, when the various armed groups in Honduran territory were often involved with narcotrafficking. The Central American civil wars of the 1980s in which the Reagan administration provided the Honduran military with millions in aid also brought an influx of American weapons which have now found their way into the hands of drug cartels. Nowadays, Mexican drug cartels have teamed up with local cartels to fight for control of the smuggling operations. The result has been rapidly increasing bloodshed and indiscriminate homicides throughout the country, especially in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula’s poor barrios but also in middle-class neighborhoods (Micheletti’s 21-year old daughter was the target of an attempted kidnapping in November). The US has poured huge amounts of money in police and military aid to Honduras, and the US uses Soto Cano airbase as a launchpad for its war on drugs operations across Central America. There has been no shortage of criticism about the US’ involvement in Honduras, allegedly turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights abuses and rising authoritarianism in the Honduran government.
It hasn’t helped matters at all that Honduras’ national police force, only created in 1998, proved not only to be totally inadequate to deal with the narcotraffickers but also to be totally infiltrated by the drug cartels themselves. The police have also been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and illegal searches. Lobo created a military police in August 2012, giving the military the upper hand in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking.
Corruption is a major issue in Honduras, which is one of the most corrupt countries in the Americas and ranked 133rd out of 174 in the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption is nothing new in Honduras, and the system has been perpetuated by the fact that both the Liberals and Nationals are patron-client networks, which have sought power for sake of patronage and used power for private benefit and created a deeply ingrained system of nepotism and political patronage. All in full impunity, because the judicial system is woefully inefficient and highly politicized. Over 80% of crimes go unreported, and only 4% of reported crimes are investigated by the police. The official human rights and citizens’ ombudsman offices are weak and often highly partisan.
Journalists, protesters, social movements and minority groups have faced unrelenting persecution and harassment from authorities or well-connected business moguls. Miguel Facussé, a businessman often described as the most powerful man in Honduras, has used his own private security forces to harass critical journalists, activists and lawyers. In September 2012, a prominent human rights lawyer who was due to testify to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about abuses committed by the landowners in a land conflict in the Bajo Aguán region; Facussé, who owns much of the land in question, has been linked to the murder. Indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans and the LGBT community continue to face discrimination and police brutality.
In May 2012, President Lobo, under American pressure, issued a decree to purge the police forces by mandating that each officer pass lie detector tests, a psychological test, a drug test, and a review of their personal financial situation. In November 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the decrees as unconstitutional; the month before that, it had also ruled that Lobo’s plans to build privately-owned/run ‘charter model cities’ (which he claimed would be like Singapore or Hong Kong) to be unconstitutional. The National-dominated Congress responded by illegally sacking four out of fifteen justices. The Congress also passed a number of laws which would consolidate its power at the expense of voters and the judiciary (such as the power to remove any official from office with a two-thirds vote).
The economy has fared little better, with post-recession growth since 2010 being slower (3.6%) than it had been in 2006-2008 (5.7%). The government has run a large deficit, failed to renew a deal with the IMF and the public debt has increased from 25% in 2009 to 40% in 2013 (and is projected to hit 67% in 2018). Under Lobo’s presidency, unlike under Zelaya, income inequality has increased by 12% – with the Gini index value increasing from 50 in 2009 to over 57 today. Zelaya’s social policies, including a 98% real increase in the minimum wage, had successfully reducing inequality, but such gains have been reversed. Between 2006 and 2009, the poorest 90% saw their income increase faster than those the richest 10% (+9% vs +1.3%); since 2010, the richest 10% saw their income increase by 6.9% while incomes for the poorest 90% fell by 6.5%. Poverty rates, which had fallen from 64% in 2005 to 58.8% in 2009, have increased to 66.5% in 2012. Social spending decreased significantly after 2010, after Zelaya’s administration had increased social spending by over 27%. Finally, the share of the unemployed and underemployed has increased from 35.6% in 2008 to 57.7% in 2012.
The National Party and the Liberal Party have dominated Honduran electoral politics for over a hundred years. As noted above, there are few ideological differences between both parties – both parties are patronage networks, competing for power and personal gain rather than any ideological competition. The conservative National Party has tended to be more pro-military in its history than the Liberals, whose leaders often found themselves in opposition to military regimes or military-backed National administrations. The Liberals have exhibited greater internal divisions than the Nationals; one should not, however, over-exaggerate the presence of leftist and rightist factions in the Liberal Party, given that most splits owe more to traditional caudillo politics and personality than anything else.
The Nationals nominated, after a contentious primary, Juan Orlando Hernández ‘JOH’, the President of the Congress and one of the most powerful politicians in Honduras. As the head of the Congress, JOH played a key role in passing key pieces of legislation (the military police, the privately-run ‘model cities’ or the removal of justices). In November 2012, JOH nicely gamed the National Party presidential primaries, which he officially won with 45.4% against 38.8% for his main rival, Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez. JOH created two fake candidates (two sisters) and effectively bought off another candidate, giving him four officials at each polling station – thereby allowing his team to control the official report which each polling station sent. Álvarez claimed that he had won the nomination, decried fraud and asked for a recount. When the courts denied his requests, JOH placated Álvarez by appointing him a ‘presidential designate’ (some sort of vice president).
JOH ran a militarist campaign, advocating a hardline military solution to the spiral of gang and drug-related violence. He most famously talked of ‘a soldier on every corner’ and doing ‘whatever it takes’ (voy a hacer lo que tenga que hacer) to counter insecurity. In concrete terms, that means expanding the military police further and giving the military full control over management of the security crisis. That prospect has alarmed many, who worry it is a step backwards for both democracy and human rights. His other policies included expanded the Bono 10.000 conditional cash transfer program to 80,000 more poor families, creating 80,000 jobs, full-scale implementing a home renovation program (Vida Mejor) for poor families (his YouTube channel includes some episodes, it reminds me of Extreme Makeover Home Edition) and some credit card program (La Cachureca) to provide cardholders with discounts on restaurants, pharmacies, clinics or telephones. The YouTube ad for the program tells us that we can sign up for this free credit card by calling a toll-free number – sounds more like some bank ad or a shady scam than a political campaign!
The Liberal candidate was Mauricio Villeda, a colourless lawyer and the son of former reformist President Ramón Villeda Morales. Villeda, who is seen as being on the Liberal Party’s right, won the Liberal primaries over Yani Rosenthal, the son of a wealthy businessman and powerful Liberal boss, who was seen as being on the left. Yani had been appointed to a powerful position in Zelaya’s cabinet despite inexperience, but the Rosenthal family broke with Zelaya and used their media empire to criticize Zelaya. Villeda was backed by former President Carlos Flores, who is the owner of La Tribuna newspaper and the nephew of infamous businessman Miguel Facussé.
A rather dry and uncharismatic attorney, Villeda’s main advantage was his moderation and his ostensible honesty. His campaign focused mostly on ‘values’ – fighting corruption and upholding the separation of powers; as a Roman Catholic and Opus Dei member, he also voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage even if no major candidate supported it.
Xiomara Castro, the wife of deposed former President Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, ran as the candidate of the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party, Libre – a play on the Spanish word for ‘free’). Libre was founded in 2011 in continuation of the pro-Zelaya and anti-coup Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP), whose activists faced harassment and violence from authorities throughout Lobo’s presidency. Xiomara is widely viewed as a proxy for her husband, who is ineligible for the presidency, given that she had next to no political activities before the coup. Mel Zelaya has appeared at her side for most of her campaign, reinforcing views that a Xiomara presidency would be a puppet for Mel. As the first genuinely leftist party with mass appeal in Honduras, Libre has attracted the support of various groups – labour organizers, indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans, LGBT groups and feminists – who have traditionally been excluded from politics. On the other hand, many were quick to point out that Libre was largely the project of Mel Zelaya’s former left-wing elite of the Liberal Party. It isn’t like Mel Zelaya is a son of the soil who rose up to join the ranks of the political elite – he is the son of a wealthy businessman and a well-off cattle rancher/landowner – and he had a long background in Liberal ranks before winning the presidency in 2005. Zelaya’s presidential term was not a shining example of probity and clean/efficient government, and Zelaya’s family is said to have profited nicely from his presidency.
Xiomara’s rhetoric was comparatively moderate – certainly not the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist fire-breathing stuff from Chávez and the Venezuelan left, although she publicly attacked neoliberalism. She promised to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, which would guarantee minority rights and citizen participation although she said she wouldn’t touch presidential reelection. She also advocated for more social programs and raising the minimum wage. On the matter of security, her approach – community, civilian policing – was diametrically opposed to Juan Orlando’s tough militarist stance. Understandably given that Libre’s activists have been harassed (and 18 killed between June 2012 and October 2013 – although 11 nacionales were also killed in this period), the party also emphasized respect for human rights as a major priority.
In a further disturbance to the two-party system, Salvador Nasralla, a sports journalist and TV host, ran a strong campaign as a fourth candidate. Nasralla founded the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) in 2011, and ran a centre-right populist campaign which lashed out at the major parties – especially the nacionales – for being extremely corrupt, although he seems to have had few proposals of his own. Nasralla was the target of a smear campaign about his supposed homosexuality, but he responded to those claims by making homophobic comments of his own.
There were four other candidates in the race. Three of them – the Christian Democrats’ Orle Solís, the Innovation and Unity Party’s Jorge Aguilar Paredes and Democratic Unification’s Andrés Pavón – came from old fringe parties which have been marginalized by the two-party system. All three parties collaborated with Lobo’s government, receiving plum jobs in his cabinet or public institutions and invariably turning out to be corrupt, incompetent or both. Andrés Pavón, who was backed by the old left-wing UD and a new personal machine (FAPER), supported Zelaya during the 2009 coup but later broke with Zelaya. However, Pavón denounced ‘collusion’ between Nasralla and Xiomara, called Nasralla a clown and said Nasralla had ‘platonic love’ for JOH given Nasralla’s unrelenting attacks on the National Party candidate. This, combined with Pavón’s kind words for Juan Orlando led Nasralla and others to claim that he was a National plant.
The other candidate was former military commander Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who was dismissed by Zelaya before the coup and was a strong supporter of the coup. He ran the already arch-corrupt state-owned telephone company, Hondutel, into the ground as CEO under Lobo’s presidency; he founded the far-right Honduran Patriotic Alliance with other ex-military types. The party drew some attention by running Billy Joya, a former CIA-trained death squad commander, for Congress.
Turnout was about 61%, up from 49.9% in 2009 – despite widespread disillusionment with the democratic process, the mobilization of Zelaya’s supporters, who boycotted the polls in 2009, likely explains this major increase in voter turnout. Results were:
President (98.61% reporting)
Juan Orlando Hernández (National) 36.8%
Xiomara Castro (Libre) 28.79%
Mauricio Villeda (Liberal) 20.27%
Salvador Nasralla (PAC) 13.53%
Romeo Vásquez (APH) 0.2%
Orle Solís (PDC) 0.17%
Jorge Aguilar (PINU) 0.14%
Andrés Pavón (UD-FAPER) 0.1%
National Party 48 seats (-23)
Libre 39 seats (+39)
Liberal Party 25 seats (-20)
Anti Corruption Party 13 seats (+13)
PINU 1 seat (-2)
PDC 1 seat (-3)
UD 1 seat (-3)
National Party 6 seats
Libre 5 seats
Liberal Party 3 seats
Anti Corruption Party 2 seats
APH 1 seat
PINU 1 seat
PDC 1 seat
UD 1 seat
Juan Orlando Hernández is the next President of Honduras. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the National Party’s candidate won about 37% of the vote against 28.8% for Xiomara, winning by a margin of 246,295 votes as of now. His victory, however, is clouded by serious suspicions of fraud or irregularities, more likely than not in his party’s favour. Xiomara has refused to recognize Juan Orlando’s victory, and intends to contest the result in court if a full manual recount of all votes is not completed by December 6. While Liberal candidate Mauricio Villeda congratulated JOH on his victory, effectively conceding; PAC candidate Salvador Nasralla joined Xiomara in denouncing fraud – on election night, Nasralla announced via Twitter that their numbers were not matching up with the TSE’s numbers.
Already before the election, a poll had shown that about 60% of Hondurans said the election would be fraudulent and Libre’s leaders publicly expressed skepticism about the impartiality of the TSE and whether they would be ‘victorious’ if they ‘won’. To be sure, all major presidential candidates – even the military fruitcake Romeo Vásquez – proclaimed before the vote that they were confident of victory because they had ‘thousands’ (if not millions) of supporters and that any other result would be unacceptable and proof of fraud. However, Xiomara and others might have a strong case which goes beyond sour grapes. Three US Democrat Congressmen wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry before the vote warning of possible fraud and decrying the militarization of society. Their letter said that the National Party dominated the TSE (which conducted the election) and the military (which brought ballot boxes to the polling stations), and mentioned the widespread suspicions of major fraud in the National Party’s primaries (administered by the TSE) last year.
There is also fairly solid evidence that there was some tampering with the results by the TSE. As in many Latin American countries (notably Mexico), the TSE re-transmitted results through a web-based interfaced (Siede) as they received the manual counts from the polling stations (actas); although unlike in Mexico or the US/Canada, they didn’t update them by-the-minute and came it at a staggered pace, with the first report covering 24% of precincts. However, many observers noted re-transcription mistakes or discrepancies between the scanned tally sheets and the database input, although this may just have been human error or computer glitches. The TSE corrected many of these mistakes, but it appears as if some remain. A parallel, independent scrutiny of the actas which has reviewed 96.9% of them, reports that Juan Orlando has 36.6% for JOH against 28.8% for Xiomara (blank/invalid votes excluded). There were additional reports of fraud, vote buying and the buying of scrutineers by the National Party.
The TSE has agreed to recount the votes as indicated on tally sheets, rather than a full manual recount of the ballots as Libre had been demanding. Libre claimed that it had found a 82,301 vote overrun for the National Party in comparing their tally sheets to TSE results, and a 55,720 vote undercount for them. This should correct any remaining discrepancies, but of course this won’t change anything if the votes were erroneously recorded or gamed in the manual tallies.
However, there is no certainty that this election was stolen or that Xiomara would have won if there had been no irregularities. The US, Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia, Italy, the UK, Chile, Japan and even Sandinista Nicaragua have recognized the results of the election. The OAS and EU observer missions cited some concerns, but generally were satisfied with the election. The EU observer report were generally pleased with the transparency of the voting process, the TSE’s re-transmission of results, the freedom with which candidates were able to campaign (notwithstanding the murder of several activists and candidates from Libre, the Nationals and other parties) and the TSE’s transparent and generally nonpartisan behaviour; however, the EU mission cited concerns with the voter register, the opacity of campaign finance, the inequality of resources and media access between parties (with the Nationals having more money, ads and presence in radio/TV/newspapers), gaps in the electoral law and some delays or inefficiency in some TSE actions. Some 30% of names in the voter register were dead or had emigrated and the EU observers said they had received “credible accusations, invariably involving the National Party and the Liberal Party” of fraudulent registrations. The report mentioned that a random sample of campaign materials in the streets disproportionately favoured the Nationals, who had 64% of the posters against 15% for Libre and 5% to the Liberals. Similarly, while the EU mission said that all candidates had access to the media, it also found that the Nationals and Liberals had greater visibility in paid advertisement in the media, lamented the lack of “critical and investigative journalism”, widespread self-censorship and conflicts of interest between media firms/journalists and parties. Additionally, the report found that the TSE “took a passive approach both to complaints it received during the campaign period.”
The EU mission said that election day unfolded calmly and the three major parties had observers in almost all polling stations. However, it noted that some accreditations had been traded or bought, with observers from minor parties (UD, PDC, FAPER) effectively representing the National Party – but “because of the balancing presence of other parties and in view of the general respect of procedures and principles, these trends did not have any impact on voting or counting processes in the polling stations observed by the EU EOM.” Finally, the EU mission said that tally sheets “forms were successfully scanned and transmitted” and “the TSE communicated clearly to the public and political parties alike.” Libre claimed that the TSE concealed the results from 20% of precincts due to ‘anomalies’; the EU mission said that when these 20% “did not comply with the minimum standards previously agreed with political parties”, the TSE met with political parties to ask for opinions on how to proceed.
Nevertheless, the EU’s report lost some credibility when an Austrian observer denounced the report, citing “countless inconsistencies” and that, during the re-transmission of results that there was no possibility to find where the tallies were being sent. The Austrian observer further claimed that a majority of his colleagues agreed with him, but were overruled by team leaders.
Regardless, however, JOH is the next president – fairly or unfairly – and Libre will live with that, although it remains to be seen whether Zelaya will ‘let it slide’ and unofficially accept the outcome or if the party will take to the streets in large protests (there have already been protests). Even thought it lost, Libre is certainly here to stay and it – along with Nasralla’s ragtag PAC – have accomplished something quite incredible: they have successfully broken the duopoly which dominated Honduran politics since the restoration of democracy in 1981 and even before that in the past 100 years.
The Liberals suffered most heavily from this defeat for the two-party system. The Liberals were severely weakened by the 2009 coup and the split in Liberal ranks which ensued, the Liberals had done very poorly in the 2009 election. The creation of Libre, which attracted somewhere between 40 to 55% of Liberal supporters or members, was another major blow to the old party. In this election, despite an ‘honest candidate’ who was generally well-regarded by most (although he generated little enthusiasm), the Liberals won only 20.3% of the vote and third place, and will hold only 25 out of 128 seats in Congress, down from an already paltry 45 seats in 2009. Villeda, in the end, generated little enthusiasm or interest in the race, and his anti-corruption/’values’ stance was likely cancelled out by Nasralla’s appeal (it is, of course, worth remembering that even if Villeda was clean, there’s nothing clean about the Liberal Party) while Xiomara certainly drew on many voters who had voted for her husband (as the Liberal candidate) in 2005 or Liberal in other elections.
The National Party won the election, but it too was hit hard by the collapse of the party system. Its winning presidential candidate only won 37% of the vote, whereas past National candidates in the two-party system had always won over 40% of the vote. In Congress, the Nationals, albeit the largest caucus, will hold only 48 seats (37.5% of seats), down from 71 and a comfortable absolute majority in the last Congress (which had enabled the Nationals to ram through controversial legislation and move against the constitutional separation of powers). Nasralla, who is said to have attracted a lot of conservative voters, likely was the biggest draw on the National Party.
As has historically been the case, the National Party performed best in the rural and mountainous departments of southern, inland Honduras. Juan Orlando won over 50% of the vote in Intibucá, Lempira and came close in Copán (over 47%) – all of these departments are in the interior highlands, a poorer and less developed region traditionally economically dependent on mining, livestock or subsistence agriculture. Juan Orlando is also from Lempira department, an old National stronghold where he won 58.6%, his best result in the country.
Juan Orlando was also victorious in Francisco Morazán department, the second most populous in the country and home to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital tucked in the valleys. He won 35% in the department against 26% for Xiomara and 23.7% for Villeda. The results in the ‘Distrito Central’ – that is Tegucigalpa and its suburbs – were similar, with 34.4% for JOH against 26.7% for Xiomara. The National Party’s mayoral candidate won by a much larger margin: 47.5% against 20.8% for Libre.
Results were more contrasted along the coast (Caribbean lowlands), the most exploited region with banana plantations, the industrial centre of San Pedro Sula and Honduras’ largest harbour at Puerto Cortés. The region had traditionally leaned to the Liberals, but the Liberals didn’t do disproportionately better in the coastal departments – it appears as if the towns which the Liberals won throughout the country are largely rural communities, probably with some kind of Liberal tradition due to Liberal bosses. The Liberal candidate did, however, win the Islas de la Bahía department, the least populated department in the country composed of culturally distinct islands off the coast of Honduras (including the tourist resort of Roatán). Both the Bay Islands and La Mosquitia (Gracias a Dios department) form distinct subcultures, because of a long history of English influence – the disputed islands were British until 1861 – and the presence of the Garífuna minority (Black Caribs who were deported by the British to Roatán). Xiomara won Colón, Gracias a Dios and Olancho (where her husband is a rancher and hails from) departments – all in eastern Honduras. Gracias a Dios – La Mosquitia – is an extremely remote and isolated backwater region, with no road connections to the rest of Honduras and consisting largely of swamps and wilderness.
Salvador Nasralla did very well in Cortés department, the most populated department with the cities of San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortés. He placed first with 34.4% of the vote, and JOH placed third with only 22.8%. Nasralla took 36% of the vote in San Pedro Sula and the PAC won the most votes and seats in the congressional races in the department. In SPS, the PAC only narrowly lost the mayoral race to the Nationals (26.6% to 27.3%) and the Liberal incumbent was sent off to fourth place. However, Nasralla appears to be from Tegucigalpa, so this can’t be a favourite son vote. This article in La Prensa suggests he won because of mismanagement by past governments in the area.
Furthermore, Nasralla’s vote was unequally divided between the regions: he won 18% in Atlántida, 15% in Comayagua and 14% in Yoro (doing best in places bordering Cortés department), 14% in Francisco Morazán; but won single digits – even low single digits and below 1% in Lempira and La Mosquitia (!) – in a lot of the other departments. Was his appeal primarily urban? That seems to be the case from my brief perusal of the results.
Juan Orlando Hernández inherits a very bleak situation – the highest homicide rate in the world, an extremely corrupt state apparatus, precarious finances (the country can barely pay its public employees) and worsening inequalities between rich and poor. Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Juan Orlando will only have a minority in Congress. This means that the Nationals will likely lead to seek alliances with other parties, the Liberals – purged of their leftist elements – being the most likely candidates. However, there’s little tradition of partisan cooperation in Honduras and past National-Liberal governments have ended with the president just favouring his own party and alienating the other party. Besides, the Liberals are entering a difficult period of rebuilding, and forming a government with JOH might not be their top priority or even an advisable path – unless they’re up for sale and the Nationals offer them a good price. Libre will certainly oppose JOH every step along the way; Nasralla’s PAC, which might collapse into irrelevance, is also very critical of JOH and on better terms with Libre, with whom they share a revulsion of the old party system and accusations of corruption against the two old parties.
This election will have marked the death of the two-party system which had ruled Honduras since independence in the 19th century (exaggerating a bit for shock value), the rise of the first genuinely leftist party with mass support and signs of increasing popular dissatisfaction with the political system and their politicians.
JOH is, furthermore, hardly an inspiring leader. His militarist campaign and talk of “doing whatever needs to be done” is hardly reassuring given the military’s longstanding disrespect for human rights and democracy, and the ingrained corruption in the judiciary and law enforcement. His own personality and background – a Machiavellian political operator, who used his position as head of Congress to ram through legislation and ramp up congressional prerogatives at the expense of checks and balances, and who likely rigged his presidential nomination last year – is hardly inspiring either (add to that the fact that his nickname is ‘Juan Robando’ (roughly Juan the thief), and the rumours that he has links to drug cartels). Past Honduran presidents have invariably failed in one way or another – Lobo was basically a disaster, Zelaya was removed from office because he was stubborn and obstinate in pushing through his initiatives despite lacking congressional support, and presidents before that did nothing to check poverty or corruption. I’d be surprised if JOH turned out to be any better.