On Sunday November 26th Honduras will hold general elections. Hondurans will choose a new president, elect the 128-member unicameral legislature and vote for all local posts in the country’s 298 municipalities. On one hand, these elections will reveal the extent of change in Honduras’ party system, which has shifted from a two-party to a multiparty system after the 2013 general election. On the other, Sunday’s elections are a referendum on the controversial re-election bid of sitting president Juan Orlando Hernández.
Change and continuity in Honduran politics
The results of Sunday’s balloting will show the degree of change within the Honduran party system, one of the oldest in Latin America. For more than a century, the Liberal Party and the National Party traded power—at least whenever elections took place (in between sporadic bout of military government). After the transition to democracy in the early 1980s, Honduras’ iconic two-party system became a central feature of the democratic landscape. From 1982 to 2006, both parties held peaceful alternations in power and received a combined vote share of more than 80% in presidential and legislative elections.
Honduras’ party system began eroding with the election of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency (2006-2009), marking the beginning of the decline of the Liberal Party. Zelaya was elected as a member of Honduras’ traditional political class, but at the end of his term he displayed one of the most notable policy-shifts that has taken place in the region; originally a centrist who embodied the status quo, he became a president who embraced Venezuela president Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian populism.
Zelaya’s populist policies polarized the country and made him unpopular among Honduran elites. The last straw was his indirect attempt to change the rules of re-election via a referendum. On June 28th 2009, the military, following orders from the Supreme Court, stormed into Zelaya’s home and, while still in his pajamas forced him onto a plane and fled him to Costa Rica. Roberto Michelleti, a member of the Liberal Party who was president of Congress at the time, led a 6-month interim government that oversaw the previously scheduled general elections in November the same year. Voters punished the disastrous performance of the Liberal Party and supported Porfirio Lobo, a member of the National Party, with 56.6% of votes.
Lobo eventually signed a truce with Zelaya, who was allowed to return to Honduras, where he founded a new party: the leftist Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE). The new party confirmed a split in the Liberal Party, since most of its members were former Liberals. At the same time, more new parties began to gain prominence. In 2013, Salvador Nasralla, a famous sports commentator, founded the centrist Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) in an attempt to fight Honduras’ severe levels of corruption. Though both parties presented clear programmatic programs, they revolved around the figures of Zelaya and Nasralla—a characteristic feature of caudillo-style Honduran politics.
Honduras’ new and traditional parties competed against each other for the first time in the general elections of 2013. Though Juan Orlando Hernández won the presidency, he did so with a plurality of 36.9% of votes. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, Zelaya’s wife, came in a close second with 28.8 percent. Meanwhile, Mauricio Villeda, a conservative member of the Liberal Party, struggled to 20.3% of votes—indicating the decline of the once powerful Liberals—while Salvador Nasralla, a newcomer, placed fourth with 13.4% of votes. The results of the congressional elections followed a similar pattern; LIBRE outperformed the Liberal Party, becoming the second largest political force in the country and marking the country’s shift from a two-party to a multiparty system.
If Zelaya’s LIBRE and Nasralla’s PAC had competed in a single list in 2013, they would have likely secured the presidency. This time around both parties are trying to avoid the same mistake of not coordinating. Last April, LIBRE and PAC, alongside the smaller Party for Innovation and Unity (PINU), joined forces in a single coalition called the Alliance of Opposition. Though each party is presenting its own congressional candidates—a decision that will likely cost them seats due to vote splitting—they have agreed on a single presidential nominee: 64-year old Salvador Nasralla. While Nasralla might be popular, the true power behind his candidacy is former president Manuel Zelaya. After a series of public confrontations with dissenting groups within his own party, PAC, Nasralla was forced to resign from the party’s presidency. As a result, if Nasralla is elected president, the renowned journalist will need to lean heavily on LIBRE’s seats in Congress to get legislation passed.
The Liberal Party, which has suffered an electoral decline since Zelaya’s policy-shift, nominated Luis Zelaya (no relation to Manuel Zelaya) to the presidency. Luis Zelaya, a 50-year old former provost of the Central American Technological University (UNITEC), and colorless technocrat, will likely reaffirm the Liberal Party’s new third place in the Honduran party system.
One of the most interesting aspects of the recent changes in Honduran politics is that the Alianza and the Liberal Party compete for the same group of voters. The competition makes sense given LIBRE’s liberal origins. Because of this competition over the shared constituency, earlier this year the Alianza asked the Liberal Party to join the coalition, a proposal that was ultimately rejected. The division only increases the likelihood of Hernández’ re-election, despite his controversial presidency.
A controversial incumbent
At 49-years old, President Hernández is the youngest president in Honduran history. Despite a contentious presidency that has delivered on economic growth but has been marked by corruption and a controversial bid for re-election, the incumbent Hernández is expected to win Sunday’s election. During his four-year presidency, Honduras’ economy has grown at 3.5% yearly. The World Bank estimates that the country will continue growing at above 3% during the following years. Poverty rates have also fallen during Hernández’s tenure, though a vast majority of Hondurans, 66%, still live in poverty.
From the start of Hernández’s first term in 2013, he has denied any intention of seeking re-election—counterpoint to Zelaya’s efforts to amend the constitution to do the same that ultimately resulted in his ouster. But in contrast to Zelaya, Hernández’s party has done everything in its power to lift the constitutional ban that prohibited a second term. After 33 years, and through unorthodox methods, the Supreme Court changed the articles “carved in stone” by the 1982 Constitution that banned re-election. After the decision, Hernández quickly changed his rhetoric and declared himself the incumbent candidate. But the issue is far from settled. There is now the question whether the Electoral Tribunal will modify the re-election provision or abolish it in the future—though likely after Hernández is already safely re-elected should he win.
Hernández’s ambitions for a second term have been clouded by corruption scandals and links of National Party members to drug trafficking and organized crime. These include accusations against the sitting president’s inner-family circle including, most prominently, his brother Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a congressman for the National Party. Devis Maradiaga, an extradited kingpin of the Cachiros Cartel with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, declared in a New York City courtroom that Tony Hernández had accepted bribes from him. Judicial documents with the transcript of the declaration also showcase the extent of corruption in the National Party. The documents reveal that the cartel paid several bribes to the former president of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo Sosa (2010-2014) before and during his presidential term (Lobo’s son, Fabio, was extradited and sentenced to 24-years in prison after the DEA arrested him for trying to snuggle cocaine from Haiti to the U.S.).
The President himself was implicated in the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) scandal. Hernández was accused of siphoning part of the $200 million that was embezzled from the Honduran health system to finance his political campaign. The sitting president accepted the accusations but sent a strong message condemning corruption and welcoming institutional reform. Bold initiatives ensued, such as a Special Commission to purge the police and the installation of the OAS-backed mechanism to fight corruption and impunity (MACCIH).
The reality, however, is that the status quo remains. This can be seen and felt with the persecution and murders of environmental, indigenous, women’s rights, human rights and LGBTQ activists. For example, over the past decade around 114 ecological activists have been killed throughout Honduras.
Hernández claims, however, that Honduras is changing (this is actually his campaign motto). At least on one area, statistics back this claim: crime and violence rates are falling (but remain alarmingly high when compared to other countries in the region). Nonetheless, Hernández preaches that progress is being made and the battle against corruption is being won thanks to his security policies and collaboration with the United States regarding extradition.
Toward Sunday’s election
With threats from opposition parties to dispute the results of the elections (even before the results are evident) and the presence of international election observers, including the European Union and the Organization of American States, the elections and Hernández’s bid for re-elections is under a microscope.
No matter who wins the presidency on November 26th, U.S. relations with Honduras will likely remain unchanged. The United States will continue to exert pressure on the Honduran government to indict and extradite members of drug cartels and organized crime rings, irrespective of their power links or social status—much like they did with the politically well-connected Rosenthal family, under charges of money laundering.
The newly elected president will face significant challenges, including the return of thousands of migrants from the United States (which will challenge both the country’s economy and security), a polarized country and a divided Congress. If Hernández secures a second term, it will be with relatively tepid public support, so legitimizing his government will be among his main tasks. If he can do that, his priorities will become enforcing a strong democratic leadership, maintaining economic growth levels, striving for transparent and efficient institutions, strengthening human rights and continuing the fight against corruption and impunity.
Gina Kawas holds an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from New York University. You can follow her on twitter @GinaKawas. Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello