On Sunday March 12th, Hondurans headed to the polls to vote in primaries to select the country’s presidential, legislative and local candidates. There was no surprise in the results for the ruling National Party (PN) and the opposition Party for Freedom and Re-foundation (LIBRE). The big revelation took place in the Liberal Party (PL), where a candidate with little political experience—former university provost Luis Zelaya—won the party’s presidential ticket by a significant margin.
The clearest winner in the primaries was Honduras’ incumbent president. The mere fact that a president will be able to run for re-elections opens a whole new era in the country’s politics, even as it threatens to close off change in the broader political system. According to official results reported by the state electoral authorities, President Juan Orlando Hernández comfortably won his National Party’s primary with 93% of votes. Due to a 2015 reform that lifted a constitutional ban on re-election, this will be the first time since Honduras’ transition to democracy in the early 1980s that a president (sitting or former) runs again for the job.
In the November 26th elections, Hernández and his party will face a divided field with a clear advantage. More than half of the ballots (53%) cast in the primary went to National Party/PN candidates. Of the total votes cast in the country (not just in the PN primaries), 49% were in favor of the sitting president, Juan Orlando, making him the favorite to win this year’s presidential election, despite a series of corruption scandals that have shaken the country during his term in office.
Further behind were the PL and LIBRE with 28% and 19% of the votes cast in the primary, respectively. Since the primaries in each party were contested, the total vote that each presidential candidate won was obviously lower still. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of ousted president Mel Zelaya (2006-2009) and runner-up in the 2013 general election, won LIBRE’s primary with 94% votes. Results for the Liberal Party were more contested, though the newcomer Luis Zelaya (no relation to former president Mel or LIBRE candidate Xiomara) won with an absolute majority, achieving 57% of votes. The Liberal runner-up, Gabriela Núñez, currently a Liberal deputy and former Finance Minister (1998-2002), received 33% of votes.
The other major party, the Anticorruption Party (PAC), pulled out of the national primaries, after its founder, Salvador Nasralla, boycotted the process refusing to present a list to compete against other factions. Since at least two lists within a party are legally needed to hold primaries, there was no formal selection processes. Instead, Nasralla proclaimed himself the party’s de facto candidate for the presidential election.
Honduras’ legislative and local primaries employ open-list proportional representation. Party factions compete internally to gain the most seats to represent their party in the general election. Every faction runs with a presidential nominee (alliances between factions are common) as their most visible candidate, thus incentivizing that when voters cast their ballots, they vote for the candidates that are listed alongside their presidential nominee—which in turn facilitates post-electoral party discipline. Though some voters select candidates across factions (although always within the same party), the norm is that they cast their ballot for candidates that represent the same party faction or alliance.
With the candidates now settled (or, in the case of Nasralla, self proclaimed) the country prepares for the November 26th elections. While the incumbent PN starts with the clear advantage—both by majority voter support in the primaries and the perks of incumbency—a larger shadow hangs over the electoral process: the lack of political change and renovation.
Honduras is home to one of Latin America’s oldest party systems. During much of the country’s history, Liberals and Nationals have dominated politics—though not always respecting democratic norms, as evidenced by the recurring drifts toward authoritarianism during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Starting in the early 1980s—with the country’s transition to democracy—both parties consolidated their electoral hegemony, together accounting for between 90 and 80 percent of votes from 1985-2009 in presidential and legislative elections, respectively. Yet, the general election of 2013 marked a shift from a bipartisan to a multiparty system. Two new parties, LIBRE and PAC, not only broke with the bipartisan establishment, but also displaced the Liberals as the second most voted party in the country.
However, the new parties have failed to coordinate and as a result present a meaningful alternative to the incumbent government. Had LIBRE and PAC created an electoral coalition in 2013 and chosen a single candidate, they would have likely taken the presidency. Instead, leftist Castro de Zelaya (LIBRE) and centrist Nasralla (PAC) ran independently and received 28.8% and 13.4% of the vote, both losing to the current president, Hernández, who won with an unimpressive 36.9% of the vote. Since there are no provisions for run-offs in Honduras, it only takes a plurality of votes to win the presidency—leaving little margin for error.
In an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the last election, in January this year, LIBRE, PAC and the smaller Party for Innovation and Unity (PINU) formed the Alianza Opositora with the goal of presenting a single candidate for this year’s presidential election. But now with the dust of the primaries settled, it’s unclear whether the loose coalition will be able to achieve its objective. Though Nasralla is more moderate in his policies, and could eventually appeal to a broader base of voters, LIBRE is backed in larger numbers at the polls. Moreover, as of today, the parties have not agreed on a mechanism that will define their presidential candidate.
The victory of Luis Zelaya (PL) adds another layer of uncertainty. His former rival, Gabriela Núñez, stated that the Liberal Party would run alone in November’s elections. However, Zelaya seems more open to negotiating with the Alianza Opositora. If the Liberals and Alianza confirm a single candidacy, their likelihood of winning the presidency will certainly increase. Yet, factionalism within the Liberal Party, as well as tensions between Castro de Zelaya, Nasralla and Zelaya, make this outcome unlikely at the moment. Though all the parties involved have publicly campaigned against Hernandez’s re-election bid, Nasralla’s PAC and Castro de Zelaya’s LIBRE have rarely acted as a unified opposition in Congress. Furthermore, LIBRE still resents the active role played by the Liberal Party in the 2009 coup against their founder and leader, Mel Zelaya.
What is more perplexing is the extent to which this year’s general election parallels the previous one. Two candidates from the 2013 election—sitting president Hernández and Castro de Zelaya—are back again, having already won their parties’ ticket. Furthermore, if the Alianza Opositora fails in nominating a single candidate, then Nasralla could also run in November. Likewise, Luis Zelaya was supported by Mauricio Villeda, the party’s candidate in 2013, pointing to little change in a party that lost heavily in the previous election. In other words, it is possible that the same candidates or party factions (as is the case of the Liberals) that competed in 2013 will do so again in 2017.
More continuity than change is taking place in this election cycle, especially since the incumbent Hernández seems lock to win the November vote. The possibility of change hinges on negotiations among opposition parties and their ability to overcome personal rivalries and factional divisions to offer a viable alternative that can govern Honduras.