Who ever thought that the avowed socialist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and the conservative iron fisted president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, would have something in common? But they do: a shared thirst of power and disregard for institutions and constraints on their authority. Morales’ ham-handed efforts to allow for his re-election to a fourth term and Hernández’ effort to do the same in Honduras—and pack and potentially corrupt the election tribunal to secure it—demonstrate that when it comes to maintaining power, ideology doesn’t matter.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. government and international groups dedicated to human rights and democracy will raise their voices with equal vigor against both transgressions. If history is any lesson—save a few groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Organization of American States—don’t hold your breath. As I wrote eight years ago, too often the region suffers from what I called (in a bastardization of Jean Kirkpatrick’s seminal article) democracies and double standards.
Whatever the final result of the Honduran election, one thing remains clear. President Hernández had attempted to secure his re-election well before he received the presidential sash. As the president of the National Congress, then congressman Hernández eased out four Supreme Court justices and replaced them with four more closely aligned with his party. Then, two years after Hernández’ election as president, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on presidential re-election. (An effort by a previous president, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009 provoked a coup that saw the leftist president forced at gunpoint to board a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas. At the time, Hernández supported the coup, during which the Supreme Court ordered Zelaya’s arrest after a “trial” in which he was never permitted to defend himself.)
With a fresh court decision (from a fresh court), Hernández set out to secure his re-election. The election was presided over by a Supreme Electoral Tribunal that is also tied to the Partido Nacional, Hernández’ party. That alone wouldn’t be much of a concern, but the tribunal was suspiciously slow and non-transparent in announcing the results of the election when initial vote tallies came in showing Hernández’ main challenger, Salvador Nasralla, in the lead. And then the lights went out… a mysterious computer glitch halted the tabulation of votes and the tribunal remained silent for days as both sides claimed victory. In the meantime, official vote tallies saw Hernández’ total vote creep up to within a tenth of a percentage point of Nasralla’s.
Of course, vote counts change as different districts report their counts, and rural districts in Honduras tend to vote more conservatively. But another factor looms over the vote tabulation process; a recording secured by The Economist (no lefty apologists there) in which an election worker instructs Partido Nacional (Hernández’ party) poll workers how to file fake ballots or to spoil ballots cast for the opposition—or enemy, as she calls them. It’s worth listening to or reading the transcript.
Then there’s Bolivia, where in 2016 President Morales held a referendum on whether the constitutional ban on two presidential terms should be lifted. The president had previously been given a pass on a three-term ban in 2009 when Bolivia’s Constitutional Court determined that the time he had served as president under the pre-2009 constitution didn’t count as a term. Much to the surprise of Morales, who has led a relatively pragmatic government and overseen years of economic growth, voters turned down his request to serve indefinitely as an elected president.
Not wanting to let popular will stand in the way, Morales supporters took the case of the constitutionality of a third term to Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal. Fortunately for Morales, the court is composed of justices that are firmly in support of the president. Unlike Honduras’ Hernández, who had to secure the removal of four justices to pack the court, Morales’ court had come through the 2011 renewal of the judicial system by election. In a potentially admirable effort to renew Bolivia’s infamously inaccessible and politicized judicial system, the 2009 constitution established popular elections for judges and justices. But the list of judicial candidates was handpicked by the pro-Morales congress. The result: a pro-Morales court in charge of interpreting and safeguarding the Bolivian constitution.
As a result, the tribunal’s decision this week on Morales’ election was no different than that of the Honduran court: sure go ahead, run again. Given the political corruption of other institutions in Bolivia, any future election will likely follow the Hernández playbook of securing electoral wins or getting close enough to declare victory.
In both Bolivia and Honduras, leaders of the left and right, intoxicated with their own power, have undermined the checks and balances essential for rule of law and democracy. When it comes to hunger for power, ideological proclamations don’t matter. Both Morales and Hernández have equally disrespected and corrupted their countries in the pursuit of it. Will the international community treat both transgressions equally?