A nation riven by a constitutional crisis. Government and opposition set in a congressional deadlock. Increasing levels of political polarization in civil society, all over the question of presidential re-election.
A similar scene played out in 2009 when Honduran president José Manuel “Mel” Zelaya (2006-2009) attempted to change the constitution to permit his re-election. Back then, though, the political opposition (including the current president’s party) and the military ended Zelaya’s ambitions through a civil-military coup d’état.
In recent months, the question of presidential re-election has erupted anew and is dividing Hondurans again.
Since its return to democracy in the early 1980s, Honduran political elites have tried to protect their country from power-drunk leaders. Their resistance stems from the country’s tradition of long-serving, repressive caudillos, such as Tiburcio Carías Andino (1936-1949) and Oswaldo López Arellano (1963-1971, 1972-1975). To protect the country against its strong-man tendencies, the Constitutional Assembly of 1980 that drafted the country’s 1982 constitution sought to constrain personal power by shielding constitutional articles from amendment, naming them artículos pétreos, or articles carved in stone. One such safeguard is Article 239, which prohibits sitting presidents from seeking re-election or becoming vice-presidents. It even punishes officials who propose the re-election of the president by banning them from public office for ten years. Another, Article 374, states that presidential term limits cannot be modified. Both of these articles cannot be amended—at least in theory.
However, on this most recent constitutional reform merry-go-round, the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice has emerged as a champion. (In 2009, it was the Supreme Court that tried Mel Zelaya in absentia and ordered his arrest, resulting in the military shooting up his house in the middle of the night and packing him onto a military airplane to Costa Rica.) In April 2015, the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice ruled in favor of amending the Constitution (particularly Article 239), based on the appeal of former president Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-1994) (who is currently awaiting a court sentence in the United States for money-laundering schemes involving soccer’s infamous world governing body FIFA) and deputies of the ruling National Party. The Supreme Court ruling ignited a fierce debate between the government and opposition. The opposition has accused the sitting president, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose term ends in January 2018, of illegally seeking a second mandate. The president has dodged questions concerning his plans, though his party has actively campaigned in favor of his re-election.
A new cohort of Supreme Court Justices (2016-2023), composed entirely of justices from the National and Liberal Parties (voted and sworn into office by Congress in February 2016), has stated that the issue of presidential re-election is res judicata, or already settled as a matter of law. Political parties have therefore turned to Congress to sort out a mechanism that will define re-election. The National Party seems more inclined to bypass Congress by simply accepting the Supreme Court ruling; deputies of the opposition parties insist that the Congress must initiate a plebiscite.
A proposal for a plebiscite, presented by the Liberals, the Party of Freedom and Refoundation (Partido Libertad y Refundación or LIBRE), the Anticorruption Party (Partido Anticorrupción or PAC), was received favorably by the opposition parties, including the Party for Unity and Innovation (Partido Innovación y Unidad or PINU), but failed to gain sufficient votes to pass. The ruling National Party and its allies rejected the proposal, on the grounds that a plebiscite cannot be held if a branch of government—in this case, the Supreme Court—has already ruled on a particular topic (notwithstanding their own plans for a plebiscite). In the absence of a qualified majority in Congress (86 votes out of 128) that is needed for a plebiscite to pass, a short-term legislative solution seems unlikely.
This leaves Honduras in an institutional deadlock with a constitutional crisis nowhere close to being solved. Primaries are due to be held in March 2017, and there is only little more than a year before the next general elections in November 2017.
Much of Honduras’ current political problems can be traced to its party system and political institutions. Honduras is home to one of Latin America’s oldest party systems: for over a century the Liberal Party and the National Party have dominated the nation’s politics in a constant power struggle that has not always respected democratic norms. The rivalry has led both parties to use state prerogatives to remain in power by packing party members in all branches of government and governmental institutions, such as the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia or CSJ), Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral or TSE), and National Civil Registry (Registro Nacional de Personas or RNP), and the extensive use of pork barrel hand-outs—weakening checks-and-balances and accountability, and leading to systematic and widespread corruption. Moreover, when in power, the National and Liberal Parties have used state social programs to build clientelistic networks—not a difficult task given the country’s endemic poverty. Policies such as the conditional cash transfer Family Allowance Program (Programa de Asignación Familiar), started by Liberals, or Solidarity Bag (Bolsa Solidaria), created by Nationals, work as little more than partisan patronage machines.
Briefly, there was a glimmer of hope. The general election of 2013 showed a popular demand for political change. By the time of the balloting, four years after the upheaval surrounding the coup, new popular parties (LIBRE and PAC) had emerged to break the corrupt bipartisan establishment. LIBRE, a new leftist-party led by liberal-now-turned-leftist Mel Zelaya won the most seats in Congress after the ruling National Party—in particular, cutting into the Liberal Party’s share. Though together the opposition parties (Liberals, LIBRE, PAC, and PINU) control a majority of Congressional seats, inter-party rivalry—especially between Mel’s LIBRE and the Liberals led by Mauricio Villeda (who supported Mel’s removal from office back in 2009)—makes the possibility of an alliance difficult.
Despite the rise of LIBRE and PAC and the increased electoral competition they have brought, Honduras’s party system has retained its caudillo-style politics. It would be difficult to imagine LIBRE without Mel and PAC in the absence of its founder, the popular television sports-commentator Salvador Nasralla.
The clock is ticking against President Hernández and his party: with elections just around the corner, Hernández needs to clarify if he intends to pursue a second term in office. If re-election is finally agreed upon, then LIBRE’s leader Mel Zelaya will also technically be allowed to run for the presidency, setting the stage for a pitched and polarized campaign.
In the meantime, Honduras appears destined to continue suffering from another constitutional crisis with rather grim prospects. Furthermore, there is worrying electoral uncertainty. With a Supreme Court ruling and a Congressional deadlock, it remains unclear whether re-election will be permitted in the upcoming elections, as well as the rules that might regulate it. Hence, even if this time partisan, personalistic re-election battles do not result in a civil-military coup, caudillista ambitions are once again undermining Honduras’ fragile democracy and constitutional order.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. student in politics at the New School for Social Research in New York.