We still don’t know the final tally of Sunday’s general election in Honduras, but if 68 percent of provisional results are valid, Juan Orlando Hernández will soon be the next president of Central America’s second-most populous country—with repercussions for the region and for the Obama administration’s Latin American policy hanging in the balance.
With a 5.16 point lead over his closest rival, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya— whose husband Manuel Zelaya served as president from 2006 until his ouster in a military coup in June 2009—Hernández seems likely to prevail in the final count. Spain, Colombia and other countries are already congratulating Hernández for his victory, however prematurely. Castro de Zelaya, on the basis of her own exit polling and analysis, declared victory Sunday night hours before Hernández did.
Despite claims that Hernández, wielding the power of a new military police force, is gearing up to lead the most authoritarian Honduran administration in memory, he faces a brutal four years in office—with no mandate, no majority and no money.
Critics worry that Hernández, currently president of the National Congress, is already more powerful than outgoing president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and looking to consolidate even more power.
Honduras will hold its presidential elections on November 24, and voters—for the first time in this Central American country’s history—might elect a female and openly socialist president, signaling the nation’s growing frustration with its male-dominated conservative leadership.
Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, representing the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE), was slated as the frontrunner in several preliminary polls conducted in September that monitored intended votes in the upcoming election. She earned 29 percent of votes in a CID-Gallup survey, followed by Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party in second place with 27 percent; and she earned 22.8 percent of votes in an Encuestadora Paradigma study, followed by Hernández with 21.9 percent, according to the Huffington Post.
The political novice has captured the attention of Hondurans around the world with calls for the establishment of a constituent assembly and nationalization programs aimed at redistributing the country’s highly concentrated wealth. She is the wife of former President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, who was forcibly removed from office in a 2009 coup d’état after being accused of violating the constitution by scheduling a referendum on proposed constitutional reforms.
The military coup, which was orchestrated by members of both the Partido Nacional (National Party) and the Partido Liberal (Liberal Party)—the two dominant political parties in the country—was followed by the interim de facto rule of Partido Liberal member Roberto Micheletti and the subsequent election of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who belongs to the Partido Nacional.
Honduras has been plagued for decades by economic inequality, violent crime and the political persecution of journalists who criticize the government, but these problems have intensified since 2009.
Porfirio Lobo will be Honduras’s next President. Consistent with recent polls, Lobo, the National Party candidate, won a resounding victory over Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos. The results were unambiguous, and Santos quickly conceded victory while Lobo and the National Party celebrated their victory. This sharply contrasts with the 2005 elections, when doubts remained about the results for over a week and speculation about vote-rigging abounded. In 2009, conversely, the question is not who won, but how many people voted. The turnout question will now become the centerpiece of the debate on the election.
After rampant speculation regarding possible Election Day protests and violence, Sunday’s elections took place under relative tranquility. The military and police were out in full force on Sunday to protect the elections, and security concerns were high enough to warrant canceling flights from the United States. There was some reported repression of protesters in San Pedro Sula, raids on pro-Zelaya groups’ offices, and temporary jamming of pro-Zelaya media. Generally, however, Honduras was quiet, and those that opposed the elections stayed at home instead of risking arrest by protesting. By mid-afternoon, the capital was a ghost town, with political propaganda everywhere but virtually no one on the streets and few cars on the road.
Soon after the polls closed, the presidential results were clear. Porfirio Lobo won well over 50 percent of the vote, while Elvin Santos received less than 40 percent. This result was predictable. Though significantly more Hondurans self-identify as Liberals, the June coup and ensuing political crisis have deeply fractured the Liberal Party. Many Liberals who identified with the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, vowed to stay away from the polls. As one Liberal Party poll worker in Tegucigalpa, Miriam DeVicente, explained on Sunday afternoon, once the polls were virtually empty, “I think that from the Liberal Party many people have stayed away.” Meanwhile, other voters punished the Liberal Party for the political crisis that took place on its watch.
Even in the best of times, under Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congresses alike, Washington’s appetite for things Latin American is limited. On occasion, a crisis breaks through the public consciousness and attracts top-level attention for a period of time, but the ability to sustain a policy that does more than just lurch from crisis to crisis really doesn’t exist. When such crisis does occur, however, Washington becomes fixated on the issue and almost completely neglects other issues in the hemisphere.
Such is the case right now. Since June 28, Washington’s primary focus on the region has been on Honduras. Even the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador-designate for Brazil, Tom Shannon, has been held up by the Senate over dissatisfaction of U.S. policy actions to sanction the government of de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti. The Senate hold on Tom Shannon, a highly-regarded career diplomat who has served both Democratic and Republican administrations with distinction, was placed back in the summer, even before the September 3 State Department announcement that pre-emptively sought to delegitimize Honduras’ scheduled November 29 elections. Since then, Washington has become even more polarized, so it’s unclear why a hold that was placed before the September 3 announcement would be lifted after the announcement without some compromise on the issues. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Tom for over 15 years and worked with him in the White House, and I consider him to be a personal friend.)
But the practical implications of this stalemate mean that the United States has no ambassador in the largest Latin American country, and may not for some time—even though the issues surrounding Brazil's emergence on the global scene are compelling—all because we continue to wrap ourselves around the axle on Honduras. It’s all so depressingly familiar, particularly for those who went through the 1980s. In fact, some of the Washington players are exactly the same ones who were involved in the 1980s disputes, from both sides. But 2009 is not 1982; and the shape of the hemisphere has changed dramatically. The longer we focus on Honduras, the longer we unilaterally decrease our footprint even further in the rest of Latin America, creating even more of a vacuum for others to fill.
Three months before Honduras’ scheduled elections, tensions remain high in Tegucigalpa. Walls and campaign propaganda are covered with pro-Zelaya graffiti; explosives have destroyed several fast food establishments and targeted certain media outlets; and a bomb scare took place near the airport this week. The military remains positioned at strategic locations in the city, closing streets without prior notice. While most people’s lives have returned to relative normalcy, groups supporting President Manuel Zelaya and de facto President Roberto Micheletti take to the streets daily. Schools remain closed from Monday through Wednesday each week, as the teachers unions have allied with other organizations to confront the de facto government.
Despite these disruptions to daily life, leaders of both major parties support the de facto government, and no governmental institution supports Zelaya’s return. In Tegucigalpa, most people seem to think that Zelaya’s return is impossible and that elections in November are the only way to end this relajo—the mess that has consumed the country since the end of June.
But the elections may not resolve this crisis. On the one hand, supporters of Micheletti’s government note that the elections were organized before the coup—with the candidates, chief among them Elvin Santos (Liberal Party, victor in last year’s primary against Micheletti) and Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (National Party, loser by a slim margin to Zelaya in 2005)—already determined. They add that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal remains independent of the Executive, so the elections will still be free and fair. On the other hand, the Organization of American States (OAS) will likely vote this week—after further sanctions from the United States and Mexico, among others—to declare that the elections will be illegitimate unless they are preceded by Zelaya’s return.