Honduran Elections and the Resurfacing of Authoritarianism


by Fernando Galeana

Current president of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez is campaigning for a second term in office despite a constitutional ban on reelection, a threat against one of the few democratic safeguards in the Central American nation. Hondurans go to the polls November 26.

Reelection has been an explosive topic in Honduras. In 2009, then-president Jose Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power for calling on a public consultation about reforming the constitution. Specifically, the consultation was designed to ask the public about their opinion for having a referendum in the upcoming general elections to convoke a special assembly that would be tasked with drafting a new constitution. The opposition accused him of attempting to reform the constitution to promote his reelection. The Supreme Court declared the consultation illegal and ordered Zelaya’s arrest.

The military stormed the presidential palace on the early morning of June 28 to arrest Zelaya and send him to exile. This was the first military coup in Central America since the end of the Cold War. The interim government defended the legality of the president’s removal arguing that it was in order to defend the constitution.  Elections were held later that year amidst violence carried out by pro-coup forces and repression of those who opposed the undemocratic takeover. Since then, the National Party has ruled the country and has presided over steadily increasing inequality and skyrocketing crime.

Reelection campaign allowed after controversial rulings

In the shadow of the 2009 coup, Hernandez’s campaign for reelection is bitterly ironic. Hernandez is pursuing reelection even though article 239 of the constitution bans it. This article is part of the core constitutional principles and supposedly cannot be amended without a referendum. Unlike Zelaya, Hernandez did not even try to organize a referendum on the constitution.

The legal case for reelection rests on a Supreme Court decision issued in 2015 that declared article 239 inapplicable because it violated the constitution and international treaties, such as the American Convention on Human Rights. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the government agency responsible for organizing the elections, has upheld the decision, but many in the country continue to regard Hernandez’s reelection campaign as illegal.    

This controversial ruling is a symptom of the weakening of the rule of law, expressed in Hernandez’s control of oversight bodies. Hernandez has been behind key judicial appointments since he became the president of Congress in 2010. In 2012, he promoted the removal of the four Supreme Court justices that voted against the Law of Model Cities, which they deemed as violating the constitution. They were replaced with justices from Hernandez’s political camp. Other measures, such as the National Defense and Security Council established in 2011, have entrenched the control of the executive over the legislative and judiciary branches and increased the militarization of the police.   

Voting in post-coup Honduras

On November 26, Hondurans will turn to the polling stations to elect the president, all 128 members of Congress, and local officials for all 298 municipalities. Since the return to civilian rule in 1982, the National Party and the Liberal Party had alternated power. This dual-party system was one of the last vestiges of the conservative and liberal bipartidism that plagued Latin American politics in the nineteenth century.

The coup, however, altered the traditional party composition. Factions of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a coalition formed to protest the coup, re-organized under the new Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre) in 2011. In the 2013 elections, Libre’s presidential candidate Xiomara Castro, the wife of ousted president Zelaya, received 28.78% of the votes, behind Hernandez 36.89%, and Libre won 37 seats in Congress. Libre displaced the Liberal Party as the second political force in the country. The Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), founded by television personality Salvador Nasralla in 2011, finished in fourth place.

The 2017 presidential contenders

In the upcoming elections, Hernandez’s top opponents will be Nasralla from the Opposition Alliance and Luis Zelaya from the Liberal Party. The Alliance is a coalition between Libre and the Innovation and Unity Party (PINU). Nasralla joined the Alliance when he failed to obtain PAC’s nomination. Zelaya is the former president of private university UNITEC. Neither Nasralla nor Zelaya has any previous experience in a public office.

The Alliance has repeatedly tried to enlist the Liberal Party into its coalition against the incumbent National Party, but the latter has maintained its distance from Libre. A recent reform to the electoral law has allowed once again to vote in block by striking a single line across all candidates for the same party. The National Party bases its campaign message on encouraging single line voting to allow President Hernandez to complete his project. With single line voting, the likelihood of the same party controlling the executive and legislative branches increases.

Corruption scandals and response of indignados   

Campaign financing is one of the most contested issues in Honduran elections. In 2015, an investigation revealed that funds from the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) were used to finance Hernandez’s campaign. This misuse of money was part of a significant corruption scheme inside of the IHSS based on fraudulent procurement of medical equipment and inflated administrative costs. It is estimated that about $297 million were stolen from the IHSS.

Facing the deteriorating quality of the health services provided by the IHSS, public opinion fueled with outrage at the news of the investigation. Under the slogan of indignados, Hondurans turned to the streets to protest in the “march of torches.” Marches were held almost every Friday between June and August of 2015.

These demonstrations were the most massive social mobilization seen in Honduras since the protests after the coup. They were attended mostly by the urban middle classes, without the organization of a central committee or the formal participation of political parties or unions. They called for an end to corruption and Hernandez’s destitution.

The marches were compared to the Arab Spring, the indignados movement in Spain, and the rallies against President Perez Molina in Guatemala. Building on the success of the demonstrations, the indignados movement began heightening the contestation against the state, mainly by organizing roadblocks, but it lost momentum by the end of 2015.

As a result of the marches, the government was forced to accept the establishment of an international body to oversee corruption in the public and private sectors. The government, however, did not allow for an independent prosecutorial commission similar to the International Commission for the Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Instead, the government agreed with the Organization of American States (OAS) to invite a Mission of Support against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). The MACCIH can support the state in the investigation of corruption cases, but it does not have the authority to prosecute or decide upon them, as the CICIG does in Guatemala.  

The mission began to function in April 2016 amidst skepticism about its actual capacity to operate independently from the government. For the 2017 elections, MACCIH lobbied for a new law to regulate  campaign financing and improve transparency. As a result, there are stricter limits on campaign contributions and spending which has visibly reduced the amount of political propaganda in the streets. Nonetheless, Hernandez has mobilized the state apparatus in support of his campaign. From ordering public employees to attend rallies to distributing food bags, public funds are used to support Hernandez’s campaign.

Honduran government tied to narcos

Even as elections near, influence of drug traffickers continues to be one of the most significant threats to the consolidation of democracy in Honduras. The declarations of Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga and Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga, two drug lords extradited to the United States, have helped reveal the connections between drug traffickers and the highest circles of government and the economic elite of the country.

The list of top profile people extradited to the US for drug-related charges includes the son of former President Porfirio Lobo and millionaire Jaime Rosenthal. A recent article published in the New York Times claims that the US authorities have evidence that the Rivera brother bribed Lobo and contributed to Hernandez’s campaign fund. Such involvement of drug trafficking interests at the highest levels of government is a symptom of the narco-state.

Honduras among most dangerous for activists, journalists

Ongoing repression of civil society makes possible the kind of impunity represented in the reelection. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and environmental activists. Berta Caceres, an internationally known indigenous and social activist, was murdered in 2016 for defending the territorial rights of the Lenca people in western Honduras against a hydroelectric project. The public prosecutor’s office has accused eight individuals of her murder, but many believe that the investigation is not going far enough in revealing the power groups behind the attack.

Activists continue to suffer repression. The Garifuna leader Silvino Zapata was killed this past October 14. He fought for the right to rivers in his community of Omoa on Honduras’s Atlantic coast. Worsening the political climate, Congress reformed the penal code in September criminalizing some forms of social protest as terrorism. If found guilty, activists face up to twenty years in jail.  

Honduras is writing a new chapter in the history of democracy in Latin America. The sanctioning of the reelection by Congress and the Supreme Court without holding a plebiscite to reform the constitution sets a dangerous precedent. Honduras is returning to an era of authoritarianism which could severely weaken democratic participation in the few spaces that have opened in these 35 years of civilian rule.      

Fernando Galeana is a doctoral candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University. He studies the establishment of new indigenous jurisdictions in the region of Mosquitia in eastern Honduras and how this new legal status changes state-society relations. His research focuses on land governance, decentralization, identity, and the political economy of development.   


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