On November 26, Hondurans will vote to choose their president, renew all 128 seats in the single chamber Congress, and elect members in all of the country’s 298 local assemblies. This will be the second election to be held after the 2009 coup of leftist president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya (2006-2009) and the 10th since the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1980s. Now, divisions within one of the once-dominant parties risks perpetuating the supremacy of one party in Honduras’ still weak democracy.
For over a century, two parties have dominated national politics: the National Party (PN) and the Liberal Party (PL). From 1982 to 2006, the parties received a combined total of more than 80 percent of votes in every presidential and legislative election. But the election of Mel Zelaya and his unforeseen policy-shift, from a traditional—conservative—member of the PL to a member of Latin America’s populist left, triggered a crisis after the Comandante Vaquero (as he was nicknamed by Hugo Chávez) sought to lift a constitutional ban on re-election. The crisis and ensuing military overthrow weakened and splintered the PL, which was once Honduras’ largest party. The Party for Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE) emerged from the shadows of the polarized Liberal Party, and after the historic elections of 2013, LIBRE displaced the PL as the main opposition party in the country.
The rivalry between the PL and its leftist offshoot, LIBRE, has strengthened the National Party’s grip on power. In 2013, PN candidate Juan Orlando Hernández won with a plurality of 36.9% percent of votes (there is no second-round vote in Honduras). In second was Xiomara Castro, the wife of Comandante Vaquero, Mel Zelaya; Mauricio Villeda of the PL placed third. The other outsider was the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), created by the popular TV host Salvador Nasralla, which came in fourth with 13.4% of votes. In other words, had the opposition united against the PN, they would have likely won the presidency. After four years, a divided opposition appears ready to repeat their mistake.
An embattled incumbent
Hernández’s presidency has been marked by macroeconomic gains, but strained by corruption scandals and his controversial bid for re-election. Under Hernández’s presidency, Honduras’ GDP has grown 3.4% yearly on average, well above Latin America’s meager average of 0.2% during the same period. But his administration has been shaken by corruption scandals, which led to massive protests in 2015. Hernández himself admitted having received $150,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Honduras’ Institute of Social Security (IHSS), the body in charge of the country’s welfare programs. Approximately $200 million was illegally taken from the IHSS during the government of his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014). Hernández, who was a close adviser to Lobo as the president of Congress, dodged public outcry by allowing the Organization of American States (OAS) to implement the Mission of Support Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which is currently investigating political corruption and reforming local police forces.
Hernández’s re-election bid also sparked a nation-wide controversy. Due to the persistent, historical influence of a number of traditional political power brokers in Honduras, the Constituent Assembly of 1980, in charge of drafting the 1982 Constitution (currently in use), prohibited the re-election of presidents and vice-presidents. In 2015, however, the Supreme Court voted in favor of amending the Constitution following a petition from deputies of the National Party and former president Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-1994) (currently awaiting a court sentence in New York due to a corruption scheme involving FIFA). Later, after the opposition attempted to overturn the ruling, a new cohort of Supreme Court justices (2016-2023) decided that the matter was res judicata, or already settled as a matter of law, thereby allowing re-election. In August 2016, the opposition tried Congress, where they proposed a national plebiscite on the matter of allowing re-election. But the proposal failed to gain a quorum. As a result, presidential re-election remains contested. In many ways, this year’s election will also serve as a national referendum on re-election.
To November’s elections
Honduras doesn’t hold midterm elections, making it difficult to assess the parties’ standing with voters. The closest measure comes from the primaries that the country’s major parties—the conservative National (PN) and Liberal Party (PL), as well as the leftist LIBRE—held on March 12. Despite the initial troubles of his presidency, the results were a clear show of strength in favor of the ruling PN and the sitting president, who was backed in the polls with a total of 1,063,807 votes—notable since there are only 6 million Hondurans of voting age.
The primary results also shed light on the weakened state of the opposition. Though no fewer than five candidates sought the presidential nomination of the PL, there were two heavyweights—each representing the party’s main rival factions. On one side was Luis Zelaya (no relation to Mel), a former university rector and a newcomer to Honduran politics who has never held public office. Zelaya ran against Gabriela Núñez, a seasoned politician currently who is currently a deputy for Francisco Morazán district, the country’s largest electoral district. Zelaya, who comes from the faction led by former interim (de facto, post coup) president Roberto Micheletti (2009-2010), comfortably defeated Núñez, who was supported by the bloc led by former president Carlos Flores (1998-2002). At the same time, even though it ran as a unified party, LIBRE placed third in total votes cast. Xiomara Castro, who was runner-up in the 2013 presidential election, won the nomination practically unopposed in the LIBRE party, with 93.9% of votes.
Though the PL and LIBRE successfully chose their presidential candidates, the PN came out of the balloting in a far stronger position. Overall, the PN more than doubled the combined vote share of the opposition—placing it as the likely winner of November’s election.
Meanwhile, Honduras’ fourth largest political party, the PAC, made an embarrassing show. The PAC was one of the biggest surprises in the 2013 election. Nasralla, a sports commentator and TV show host (who in the past has bragged about having sexual intercourse with more than 700 women), received an astonishing 13.4% share of the vote. But a series of public internal disputes between Nasralla and factions within the PAC—particularly with Marlene Alvarenga, a deputy from the Francisco Morazán district—led to his removal from the party presidency. As a result, Nasralla and those loyal to him abandoned the party and now call themselves the “true” PAC.
A candidate without a party
To avoid the mistakes of the past, opposition parties have sought to unite under a single candidacy. LIBRE, the supporters of Nasralla in PAC, and the smaller social democratic party, PINU-SD, decided to join forces earlier this year by forming the Opposition Coalition. The coalition made a surprise move when they nominated Nasralla as their presidential candidate. Though Nasralla does not have a party of his own, he was chosen because of his star status (and perhaps his virile reputation?) in Honduras, as well as his ability to draw in voters from the center.
The Opposition Coalition only exists for the presidential election. Each party has largely chosen to maintain separate their own lists for deputies and local assemblies, which will likely result in vote splitting. Even in the unlikely scenario that Nasralla and the Opposition Coalition succeed in winning the presidency, they will likely hold a minority of seats in Congress.
The great absentee in the Opposition Coalition is the PL. Though LIBRE, PINU-SD and Nasralla’s PAC extended an invitation to the PL nominee, Luis Zelaya, the party discarded the offer. Instead, the PL has been consumed by its traditional infighting. Last week, the runner-up in the PL primary, Gabriela Núñez, publicly declared that she would not campaign in favor of Luis Zelaya after she was denied from seeking reelection as deputy. Zelaya attempted to lower the tension within the party by saying that he had won many (football) matches with fewer players in the field. But the real question is whether the opposition will be able to win this year’s election playing against each other, as well as against a unified incumbent government.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello