Honduras: Another Political Crisis?

Xiomara Castro de Zelaya wants to bring 21st century socialism, Venezuela style, to Honduras.  (Photo: Libre)

A victory by presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya could return Honduras to the 2009 political crisis, experts warn.

Inter-American Dialogue

Honduras will hold its presidential election on Nov. 24 to determine who will succeed President Porfirio Lobo in January. In a race with eight declared candidates, who are the election's front-runners, and what are the differences in their platforms? What issues are driving the campaigns? What challenges will the country's next president face? What is at stake in the local and legislative elections that are being held the same day?

Enrique Rodríguez-Burchard, partner and director of the Honduras office of Aguilar Castillo Love and former Liberal Party member of the Honduran Congress:  After more than 120 years, the rule of two parties is at stake, the country could have its first female president, and multiple ideologies will be represented in Congress. Juan Hernández--the youngest of the four frontrunners seeking to replace President Lobo--is promising a modern state and to defeat the rampant criminality. As head of Congress, the candidate of the National Party has proven to be a leader that delivers under turbulent circumstances. But despite these attributes, Hernández is paying the price of diminished popularity of his pal Lobo. Targeting the establishment and blaming traditional politics, Salvador Nasrrala--a TV star--formed the Anti-Corruption Party and soon attracted young and educated voters. However, raising the flags of popular discontent hasn't proven to be enough; without a nationwide structure and political expertise, Nasrrala is facing obstacles. After returning from exile, former President Zelaya launched the Libre party with his wife Xiomara as the presidential candidate. Zelaya's offer is aggressive: to write a new constitution under the principles of 21st century socialism, Venezuela style. Promising land for campesinos and to double salaries in urban clusters, Xiomara has taken the lead according to recent polls. In a land where poverty and exclusion is a reality for the average citizen, this position has many followers. Mauricio Villeda's supporters claim he is the only candidate poised to restore decency in the government. Appealing to the legacy of his father, former president Villeda Morales, Mauricio is trying to convince the electorate that the Liberal Party is the only reliable alternative to run the country, to preserve public institutions and the rule of law. He must rush to persuade independents and discontent members of other parties if he wants to secure a victory in November. Whoever wins the upcoming election will face a skyrocketing debt plus the same old problems: crime, corruption and poverty.

Donald J. Planty, president of Planty & Associates LLC and former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala:  The Nov. 24 elections will shape the future of Honduras for some time to come. The two leading candidates, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya of the Libre Party and Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party, are running neck and neck, and indications are that the winning margin will be razor thin. Castro has proposed a new constitution to reshape the country. Such action would be banned under the existing Constitution, raising fears that she will quickly polarize the country if elected and take Honduras down the path espoused by her husband, former President Mel Zelaya. If so, this could bring Honduras to the brink of another political crisis à la 2009. Hernández is less controversial, but has proved to be a lackluster candidate with few ideas other than depending on a 'mano dura' strategy to improve flagging security. Considering the stakes, the U.S. government has been strangely passive during the campaign. The United States is not fielding an election observer delegation but instead is relying on a local non-governmental organization to monitor the polls. Given the closeness of the race and the potential for violence if there is no clear-cut outcome, this approach seems at odds with U.S. interests. A greater threat to U.S. interests, however, would be the emergence of a government manipulated in the shadows by Mel Zelaya, stressing already weak institutions with a bankrupt Chávez-like 21st century socialist agenda that would also undermine the Central American Regional Security Initiative, which is so important to the region and to the United States.

Fernando Menéndez, economist and principal of the Cordoba Group International LLC: Honduras' upcoming elections have wide-ranging consequences for the region. At issue is whether Honduras takes a path of economic and political development consistent with liberal and democratic values, or takes the road of 21st century socialism, the model espoused by the late Hugo Chávez and his ALBA followers, with its polarized societies, restricted individual and civil liberties and squandered opportunities for economic prosperity. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the left's candidate, promises to put Honduras back in the ALBA column her husband intended before his contentious removal from office. ALBA-style regimes, fueled by the resentment of the poor and marginalized, begin by subverting existing democratic institutions and end by making people increasingly dependent on the government for their livelihood. Similarly, they provide cover to both state and non-state actors (for example, Iran, Hezbollah and drug cartels) that are hostile to regional security and stability. The opposition, divided by traditional bickering, seems to be taking this as just another election. Given Honduras' first-past-the-post electoral system, Castro can win with less than 50 percent of the vote, unless the opposition unites to defeat her. She will then call a constituent assembly to consolidate power in the executive, remove checks on state intervention, purge the military and otherwise rig an undemocratic system by seemingly democratic means. If there's any doubt what is at stake, just look at Xiomara's main backers throughout the region: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Each is a nail in the coffin of pluralistic democracy.

Rosemary A. Joyce, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley: All polls consistently have shown Xiomara Castro and Juan Orlando Hernández as the leading candidates for president in Honduras. Hernández is a classic Partido Nacional candidate: running on promises to improve security and seeking to follow the example of Porfirio Lobo Sosa in moving from head of Congress to head of the executive branch. The new militarized police is one of his signature achievements. He has not been able to say much about the economic distress Honduras is in, since his party controls both Congress and the presidency. He supported the libertarian model cities initiative of Lobo, promoted as an economic development initiative. Xiomara Castro contrasts vividly, as the candidate of Libre, formed out of the resistance to the 2009 coup and its aftermath. Honduran media has caricatured Castro as a front for her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya. However, this ignores her actual prominence in the resistance in 2009. Libre has a platform that begins with a call for a constitutional convention and includes a promise to send the military back to their barracks and stress community policing. Libre campaigning has emphasized a wider range of issues than has the Partido Nacional, including community development, indigenous and women's rights issues and stronger cultural policy. Regardless of who is declared the winner, the next president will face intractable economic issues, likely without a clear mandate. He or she will be challenged to reverse the erosion of the Honduran economy.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor

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