A stable crisis in Honduran democracy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 26, 2013


The dispute over who won the presidential election in Honduras should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid some attention to political developments in Honduras in the past 4 years. Since the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009, democratic institutions have remained weak and the rule of law has been selectively enforced by those in power.


There are good reasons to believe that Juan Orlando Hernández, from the ruling National Party (PN), has narrowly defeated Xiomara Castro, the candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE). However, the fact that Castro is Manuel Zelaya’s wife has given credibility among Zelaya’s supporters to the claim that right-wing groups have once again tampered with democratic institutions to block the Zelayas from exercising power.


Honduras is one of Latin America’s least developed nations. With a GDP per capita only higher than Haiti, Nicaragua and Bolivia’s, Honduras ranks among the worst performing countries in terms of infant mortality, life expectancy and access to health and education in Latin America. With one of the highest homicide rates in the world, Honduras is also plagued with crime, gangs and drug-trafficking. The admittedly weak institutions and its ill-functioning democracy also make Honduras one of the Latin American countries with the lowest level of support for democratic governments in the continent. Several different indicators of quality of democracy also show deficient scores for Honduras.


Although the country was never an example of a well-functioning democracy, after the forceful overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, democracy has underperformed and democratic institutions have further weakened. While the rest of Latin America has seen economic growth and democratic consolidation, Honduras has remained trapped in the debate over the constitutionality of the overthrow of Zelaya.


A landlord with no prior leftist inclinations, Zelaya was elected president as the candidate of the market-friendly Liberal Party. But shortly after his inauguration in January 2006, Zelaya turned into an enthusiastic supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. As Honduras desperately needed oil, Zelaya readily accepted the oil subsidies handed out by Chávez in exchange for political support for the former Venezuelan president’s Bolivarian initiatives.


When the opposition denounced that Zelaya wanted to remain in power by summoning a constituent assembly to draft a new Constitution, Congress moved to depose him five months before the scheduled presidential election. As he was expelled from Honduras by the armed forces — after being forcefully removed from his house in the middle of the night — Zelaya credibly claimed that his overthrow was unconstitutional.


Latin American presidents — especially those close to Hugo Chávez — refused to recognize the new interim government. But after presidential elections were held in November of 2009, most countries rushed to recognize the new democratic government of Porfirio Lobo, from the PN, who won with 57 percent of the vote.


Zelaya’s call to boycott the election failed. In the eyes of most foreign countries, since Lobos was a declared candidate before Zelaya was removed, his inauguration brought an end to the constitutional crisis. Once in power, Lobos negotiated with Zelaya and allowed him to return to the country. Zelaya and his wife Xiomara formed their political party and began campaigning for the 2013 election.

Without financial support from Venezuela and given Zelaya’s recent conversion to the left, LIBRE quickly evolved into a personalist party with a confusing and often contradictory political platform. The fact that the presidential candidate was the deposed president’s wife threatened with turning the 2013 election into a referendum on the 2009 overthrow of the government. The Zelayas actively campaigned on populist promises and anti-US rhetoric.


On election night, Castro twitted that exit polls indicated that she had won the election. Partial official results — with some 60 percent of the votes counted — show the PN Juan Orlando Hernández ahead with 34.2 percent of the vote, against Castro’s 28.5 percent.


The vote for the Liberal Party candidate Mauricio Villeda (20.1 percent) shows a country divided by a three-way split. Since the PN and PL are ideologically closer to each other, the still undetermined composition of Congress will likely make the LIBRE party the leading opposition group. As Honduras does not have run-off provisions, Hernández is likely to be named president when all votes are counted, even if he only takes a few thousand votes more than Castro.


Anticipating that outcome, Castro has rushed to question the results and fears of political violence abound. After being thrown out before the end of his term, Zelaya can credibly claim foul play against his family.


In the end, everyone will lose in Honduras. If he is declared the winner, Hernández will be inaugurated in January, but the Zelayas will question his legitimacy. Honduran voters remain divided, but polls show that they were more interested in having leaders who can tackle the nation’s endemic poverty and high crime rates rather than on taking sides on the 2009 Zelaya overthrow.


Unfortunately, because the political scars remain open, Honduran politics will continue to revolve around the unfortunate incidents of 2009 while the pressing problems caused by Honduras’ underdevelopment remain unsolved.