In Honduras, candidates and political parties are preparing for next year’s general elections, scheduled for November 2021. While the incumbent National Party (PN)—which has overseen a profound shift toward authoritarianism—is displaying unity in the face of challenges, the country’s main opposition blocs remain bitterly divided. The lack of meaningful electoral reform hints that the November 2021 contests will function under the institutional framework that resulted in massive voter fraud in 2017. With primaries scheduled for March 2021, time is running out for the opposition to join forces behind a single candidate, increasing their chances of successfully challenging the ruling party.
The PN has ruled consecutively since 2009 through the presidencies of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-2014) and Juan Orlando Hernandez, or JOH (2014-present). Along with the Liberal Party (PL), the PN is one of the two traditional parties that governed Honduras since democratization in the early 1980s. Unlike the PL, the PN has avoided breakdown and adapted to the multiparty equilibrium that abruptly emerged in the 2013 election.
As the ruling party, the PN is responsible for the growing corruption and democratic backsliding that Honduras has suffered in the last decade. The party has also cultivated strong ties with drug cartels. Numerous cases involving high-ranking PN officials have given Honduras the unwanted title of a narco-state. Fabio Lobo, Pepe’s son, is currently serving a 24-year jail sentence for attempting to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Last year, a New York jury found Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the sitting president’s brother and former PN legislator, guilty on four counts—including conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. Tony risks a life sentence. New York Federal prosecutors have routinely mentioned Pepe and JOH as co-conspirators in drug schemes. Prosecutors say JOH allegedly received $1.5 million from former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to finance his election campaigns.
Despite mounting evidence of drug-trafficking, the PN remains united. Although Pepe has severely criticized JOH—even calling for his resignation—he remains a player at the margins. His other son, Jorge Lobo, is seeking the party’s presidential nomination. Currently, the primary heavyweights are Mauricio Oliva, the powerful President of Congress who has alleged ties with drug-cartels, and Nasry Asfura, the Mayor of Tegucigalpa. Notwithstanding the natural tensions between the two veteran politicians, they remain committed to the party. If past behavior is a good predictor of future outcomes, then the PN will seek the presidency in 2021 supporting a single candidate.
The same can’t be said of the opposition. There is a lack of meaningful coalition-building between the three main opposition blocs: the leftist LIBRE, the conservative PL, and the shifting individual leadership of Salvador Nasralla. While most of the tension involves LIBRE and the PL, as the former split from the latter in the wake of the 2009 coup against President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya (2006-2009)—who remains the party’s leader—the problems between both shouldn’t be more important than those they have with the incumbent PN.
Yet, in the aftermath of the 2017 election fraud, LIBRE’s ability to mobilize crowds severely deteriorated. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only a handful of individuals attended its rallies. The party’s failure to mobilize Hondurans to increase pressure in favor of the renewal of the mandate of the Mission to Support Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) evidences this outcome. At the same time, the PL, led by the uncharismatic Luis Zelaya (no relation to Mel), remains preoccupied with internal conflicts. Salvador Nasralla, the leading opposition candidate in the 2017 presidential election, is forming a new party after being expelled from the one he previously founded, the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC).
What is striking about Honduras’ opposition is the failure to learn from its past mistakes. An overwhelming majority of Hondurans repeatedly vote more for opposition parties than the PN. In 2013, the combined vote share of LIBRE, the PL, and Nasralla reached 62 percent of valid votes, while in 2017, their joint vote share was 56.2 percent (the figure is probably higher due to the irregularities surrounding the contest).
In the past, the main opposition blocs have attempted to build coalitions with uneven success. In 2013, they ran on separate platforms. In 2017, however, LIBRE, Nasralla, and the smaller Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) formed the Alianza coalition. With Nasralla as their presidential candidate, the coalition likely won the election—but massive vote fraud gave the victory to JOH (who ran after a questionable reinterpretation of the 1982 Constitution). In a hotly contested race, JOH secured victory with less than 60,000 votes, translating to a 1.5 percentage point lead over Nasralla. In retrospect, had Luis Zelaya, who refused to join the Alianza and received 480,000 votes, dropped out of the race, the balance would have tipped in favor of Nasralla.
In October 2019, the three opposition leaders—Mel, Luis, and Salvador—briefly coordinated efforts in the wake of Tony’s conviction. Yet, the experiment was short-lived. Ever since, they have resumed their attacks on each other. To this day, personal agendas and the individual fate of each candidate or party seem more important than addressing the real problems that burden Hondurans. The opposition blocs appear busier fighting each other than building a platform to challenge the PN.
In addition to their rivalry, the opposition has failed to push for crucial electoral reform. Part of the responsibility, undoubtedly, lies with the PN, which has dragged its feet to delay change. The lack of reform means that the framework that regulated the 2017 election fraud will remain in place for the 2021 contest. While LIBRE gained representation in two crucial entities that oversee elections—the National Registry of People (RNP) and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)—the voter census hasn’t been updated. Even worse, the country’s problematic vote-counting process remains untouched. If Hondurans headed to the polls this Sunday, nothing would stop the PN from tampering again with the results.
Honduras’ main opposition blocs need to rise to the occasion. With elections around the corner and a playing field tilted against them, it is time for LIBRE, the PL, and Nasralla to leave their differences behind and offer voters a unified platform. They need to realize that, individually, each party is a weak counterweight to the PN. Past divisions—especially between LIBRE and the PL—shouldn’t be an obstacle to fight for a better future. Unless they can react quickly, the PN may very well win another 4-year term. With another PN victory, the urgent problems stemming from corruption, impunity, and drug-trafficking will remain unaddressed.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello