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Honduras’ Captivating Race to the Polls

Elections in small Central American countries rarely garner the kind of international attention that Honduras is receiving ahead of its November 24 presidential vote. Then again, this is no ordinary election. One of the frontrunners, Xiomara Castro, is the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in Latin America’s last coup in 2009. Her main opponent is Juan Orlando Hernández, a member of the Partido Nacional de Honduras (National Party), which has ruled the country since Zelaya was forced from power. The political grudge match is playing out in a tinderbox of a country: Honduras is home to the world’s highest murder rate and an embattled economy that has passions running high.

Castro's very candidacy represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes for Zelaya, who is the dominant influence behind his wife's newly founded Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE). Only four years ago, Zelaya was unceremoniously removed from office by the military after he moved to rewrite the country's constitution. Exiled until 2011, Zelaya saw his public support rebound dramatically on the back of widespread sympathy in the wake of the coup, which many Hondurans felt was unlawful.

In the years since, the ruling Partido Nacional has struggled to govern. President Porfirio Lobo’s focus on reconciliation in the wake of the coup kept him from confronting major economic and security challenges. In the void, transnational drug-trafficking organizations and domestic gangs have expanded their influence in Honduras unabated. Separately, the economy is under siege. Honduras ended 2012 with a budget deficit amounting to approximately 5 percent of GDP, its second highest in 10 years, while the country’s $5 billion foreign debt is equivalent to last year's entire budget. Starved of funds, the state has been unable to pay public workers, prompting thousands to take to the streets.

Enter Castro, the anti-system candidate, harping on the flaws of both major parties: the Partido Nacional and her husband’s former Partido Liberal de Honduras (Liberal Party of Honduras). Castro’s populist rhetoric plays well with the increasingly restless voting public, but her rise is also fuelled by the considerable patronage of her husband—a wealthy landowner. Castro’s LIBRE party might be better defined by its opposition to the current ruling class than by any unifying ideology. It is a loose alliance of disparate interests, ranging from radical hardline leftist elements to center-left ones. This could complicate the party’s reign should it prevail.

LIBRE’s opponents paint the party as a fringe group of agitators, willing to upend social order to get their way. Although this may be an exaggeration, widespread unrest is a real concern. The run-up to the election has seen presidential and congressional candidates from all parties threatened with violence; some have even had relatives killed.

Given the intrigue of the campaign itself, the actual election may prove a bit anticlimactic. There will be 12,700 election monitors on hand to deter any fraud, and neither of the leading candidates seems wont to inspire protests in the face of a loss. The presidency that follows is unlikely to prove very transformative either. Despite Castro’s populist rhetoric, her husband’s administration adhered largely to a macroeconomic orthodoxy, welcomed foreign and private investment, and maintained relations with the IMF. A LIBRE administration is unlikely to follow a radically different path.

A Hernández victory would be welcomed by the business community, given his track record of introducing pro-business legislation as the former president of Congress. The country’s precarious economic situation means any eventual victor would have the overriding priority to boost state income levels. Either would likely prioritize negotiations with the IMF and other international lenders, while simultaneously selling off failing state entities and attracting foreign direct investment.

It’s not an attractive job. The eventual victor must pull the economy back from the brink and get a handle on rampant crime while dealing with a fractured Congress, in which the losing party will hold considerable influence. Given those prospects, they had better have enjoyed the campaign season while it lasted.   

*Daniel Sachs is a Latin America analyst with Control Risks, a global risk consultancy.  

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Honduras coup, Manuel Zelaya, Xiomena Castro

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