Since the June 28th coup removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from power, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti has vigorously defended the upcoming elections as the way out of the political crisis. In recent weeks, the central question has become whether the international community will recognize the upcoming presidential elections. With the breakdown of negotiations and Zelaya’s recent declaration that he will not accept restitution from the Congress (itself increasingly unlikely), the Organization of American States (OAS) will almost certainly not send election observers. Conversely, Panama, Colombia and the United States have indicated they will recognize the elections, which undermines the previous international consensus on the Honduran crisis.
Meanwhile, last week, independent presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes pulled out of the race because President Zelaya had not yet been restored. Cesar Ham, the other pro-Zelaya candidate, will decide this week whether to end his presidential bid, as well.
But the other major story last week was that Rodolfo Padilla Sunseri, mayor of San Pedro Sula (the country’s second-largest city and commercial hub), has pulled out of his re-election race. This serves as an important reminder that these elections will determine—in addition to the President and the 128 members of Congress—the mayors of all 298 Honduran municipalities. Padilla Sunseri’s resignation reveals the importance of municipal politics a lens for understanding the last five months in Honduras. Honduran municipalities aligned with Zelaya have been hit hardest by the coup, and their plight reflects the political divisions within the country, the duplicity of the Micheletti regime and the difficult decision facing pro-Zelaya candidates.
Micheletti Freezes Transfers, Violates Law
Since June 28th, approximately 60 mayors (roughly 20 percent) nationwide have declared themselves in Resistencia. They have protested in their municipalities and Tegucigalpa, demanded Zelaya’s restitution and threatened to boycott the elections. According to Sandra Marybel Sánchez, Director of Information and Communications for the Honduran Association of Municipalities (AMHON), the Micheletti regime has suspended government transfers to these municipalities since assuming power. The suspension of these funds violates the Law of Municipalities, which guarantees that the national government will directly transfer 5 percent of tax revenues to the municipalities.
As in most of Central America, Honduran municipalities rely heavily on funding from the central government. As the 2008 Estado de la Región report explains, the trend toward decentralization—which began in the 1990s in Central America—has sputtered, if not reversed, throughout the isthmus. As in neighboring countries, local governments in Honduras remain heavily dependent on financial transfers from the central government for providing basic services and infrastructure projects. In addition, Honduran municipalities cannot levy their own taxes, reinforcing their dependence. Thus, the Micheletti government’s retaliation has paralyzed many municipalities’ ability to deliver basic services and made it less likely that other mayors will turn toward Zelaya.
In response to the freezing of funds, one mayor, Amable de Jesus Hernández, from San José de Colinas in the department of Santa Bárbara, has taken his case to the Supreme Court. In his submission to the court, Hernández argues that the government has violated both the law and his constituents’ constitutional rights to education and health. Hernández cites various education, health and public works projects that have been held up in his municipality because of lack of funds from the central government. In addition to paralyzing new projects, the municipality has also not been able to pay for the gas for the local ambulance, the transportation of free lunch to public schools and literacy and public health programs.
While the outcome of the San José de Colinas case remains unknown, starving such municipalities of legally-mandated funds belies the Micheletti government’s concern for the poor. In the press, Micheletti’s government has decried the freezing of international aid funds for hurting the neediest Hondurans. The political crisis has, indeed, hit the Honduran poor hard. But if Micheletti were truly concerned about these people’s plight, his regime would not be cutting off transfers to municipalities in violation of Honduran law.
Suspending funds may also be serving another purpose—reducing the odds of pro-Zelaya mayors’ re-election. For instance, the mayor El Paraíso, Ovidio Segura, has protested in Tegucigalpa and publicly supported Zelaya since the coup. As of early November, visible municipal projects like road improvement remained on hold because of lack of transfers since the coup. Many local voters remain firmly with Mayor Segura, but others blame him for the suspension of these projects. If voters do not make the connection of why projects have been halted—and the mainstream media has not covered this issue at all—the mayor could take a hit in the upcoming election.
Deciding Whether to Run
This brings us back to the election itself. All 60 Resistencia mayors—as well as pro-Zelaya candidates for Congress and municipal councils—now face the difficult decision of whether to pull out of the elections. On the one hand, personal interests, party loyalty and commitment to the municipality dictate staying in the race. On the other hand, the Liberal Party is deeply fractured—with its leaders supporting the coup—and staying in the race would lend the elections greater legitimacy.
Mayor Segura has decided to continue his re-election campaign and support Liberal Party presidential candidate Elvin Santos, arguing that he owes allegiance to both his party and his municipality. “I am running for re-election, and it’s a commitment I have, first, to my party. And also with the municipality. I cannot abandon the trenches of this struggle, where I know I can do a lot inside and not outside [the municipality].” Loyalty to the Liberal Party at this stage may seem unwarranted, as Segura and other candidates supporting Santos will be supporting a faction of the Liberal Party that has supported the coup. That said, Honduran party loyalties have deep roots, so Segura’s position may signal the difficulty of renouncing a major piece of one’s political identity. And in addition, of course, Segura and others who decide to run will be motivated by their personal interests in retaining power and a generous government salary.
But the mayors’ concern for their municipalities is equally real. El Paraíso, for instance, is a Liberal-dominated municipality, and Zelaya supporters here feel that the municipality is all that people have left. To many, leaving the municipality to the National Party would signal the ultimate betrayal. As Sandra Sánchez explained: “In certain municipalities, the communities say, ‘We’ve had the coup, we’re going to have another coup with the elections,’ because Pepe [Porfirio Lobo, National Party candidate] or Elvin [Santos] will win and they supported the coup, ‘and on top of that we’re going to lose the mayor’s office? We don’t want that.’”
Faced with a difficult decision, it is not yet clear how many candidates will follow Mayor Padilla Sunseri’s path of renunciation and how many will follow in Mayor Segura’s footsteps. But, given the decline in popular mobilization and the eroding international consensus regarding the upcoming elections, staying in the race may have become more attractive.
Gauging Popular Perceptions
If most candidates stay in the race—deciding that withdrawing would be futile—the comparison between the numbers of votes cast in the municipal and presidential contests will provide an important indicator of voter sentiment.
Already, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has expressed its deep concern with abstentionism. In a country where voting is mandatory, the TSE is calling on citizens to exercise their civic duty and has already taken steps to punish promoters of an electoral boycott. The military—placed under TSE control this month—has also been distributing leaflets and flyers stating that boycotting is a punishable offense and encouraging citizens to report any boycott or sabotage activity.
But even if the boycott fails and the TSE applies enough pressure to ward off a significant Election Day stay-away, those who oppose the coup may abstain from voting for president while voting in mayoral races. In interviews in El Paraíso, for instance, many residents indicated that they may vote for Segura’s re-election, but they will not vote for president. For these voters, politics at the national level has become illegitimate, while they feel more represented by their mayor.
This is not to say that Hondurans overwhelmingly support their mayors. Instead, these voters’ sentiments are consistent with the results of the Latin American Public Opinion Project’s 2008 Honduras report—namely, that most Hondurans do not trust local government, but they trust national political institutions even less.
Thus, assuming the election is held as scheduled, observers should compare presidential and mayoral vote tallies. Assuming that the TSE does not inflate the number of votes cast to augment the election’s perceived legitimacy (such fraud is not beyond the realm of possibility), this comparison could reveal a great deal about the legitimacy of Honduran political institutions in voters’ eyes.
Already, the municipalities have been deeply affected by the coup and its aftermath. When Election Day finally comes, tallying the choices of mayoral candidates and the results of municipal elections will be one of the keys to appreciating the domestic complexities of the Honduran political crisis.
Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.