We still don’t know the final tally of Sunday’s general election in Honduras, but if 68 percent of provisional results are valid, Juan Orlando Hernández will soon be the next president of Central America’s second-most populous country—with repercussions for the region and for the Obama administration’s Latin American policy hanging in the balance.
With a 5.16 point lead over his closest rival, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya— whose husband Manuel Zelaya served as president from 2006 until his ouster in a military coup in June 2009—Hernández seems likely to prevail in the final count. Spain, Colombia and other countries are already congratulating Hernández for his victory, however prematurely. Castro de Zelaya, on the basis of her own exit polling and analysis, declared victory Sunday night hours before Hernández did.
Despite claims that Hernández, wielding the power of a new military police force, is gearing up to lead the most authoritarian Honduran administration in memory, he faces a brutal four years in office—with no mandate, no majority and no money.
Critics worry that Hernández, currently president of the National Congress, is already more powerful than outgoing president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and looking to consolidate even more power.
They have good reason. Hernández steamrolled the more popular Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez last December to win his party’s presidential nomination and refused to allow a ballot recount of his narrow primary victory, leading to suspicion of electoral fraud just 11 months ago. Earlier this year, he led the National Congress to depose four members of Honduras’ top constitutional court. Hernández has increasingly set the Honduran policy agenda in recent years and in August, he pushed into law the controversial military police program that’s become the cornerstone of his presidential campaign.
“This is terrifying,” Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz told me in an interview earlier this month. “If Juan Orlando wins…the space for democratic opposition is going to get tinier and tinier.”
While his critics might be right to worry, Hernández is now certain to face a tainted victory, and he’ll assume control over a country that’s facing dual—and to some degree, mutually reinforcing—security and economic crises.
Since Honduras returned to regular democratic elections in 1981, presidential (and, for the most part, parliamentary) contests have been a two-party affair, a rivalry between two sets of elites—Hernández’ conservative Partido Nacional (National Party) and the more centrist Partido Liberal (Liberal Party).
But when the Zelayas took the left wing of the Liberal Party, joined forces with Indigenous, labor, LGBT and other activists to form a new, clearly leftist party—the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE) , it destroyed that pattern.
In light of Honduras’ single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system, LIBRE’s advent made it a near-certainty that the next president would win with less than an absolute majority. If Hernández wins with just 34 percent of the vote, it will mean that nearly two-thirds of Honduran voters rejected his approach.
Both Castro de Zelaya and fourth-place candidate Salvador Nasralla (who’s polling a higher-than-expected 15.64 percent)—a populist sports broadcaster who started a rival right-wing “Anti-Corruption Party”—have already alleged fraud. It’s too soon to know if those accusations have any substance, but there’s certainly enough doubt—not least of all due to the National Party’s disputed 2012 primary elections—to take them seriously.
But even if it turns out that Honduras’s election was “free” in a technical sense, there’s wider doubt that it was a truly fair election. LIBRE candidates, along with journalists and various other activists, have been killed, attacked and harassed with alarming frequency since the 2009 coup.
On Saturday night, two LIBRE leaders were assassinated near Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital. They weren’t the first LIBRE activists to be killed in Honduras and they won’t be the last—with little apparent ability to combat the world’s highest homicide rate, the Honduran state is unable to investigate murderers who can kill with impunity.
Hernández, if his apparent victory stands, could also face a divided Congress. To some degree, it was wily of him to push his military police bill into law in August while the National Party held 71 of the unicameral Congress’ 128 seats. But with three parties and a handful of smaller parties vying for congressional seats, it’s not inconceivable that the National Party will now hold less than 50 seats—far less than a working majority.
Where will Hernández find his allies?
“There won’t be any alliances,” said Germán Leitzelar, a former labor minister and a congressman for the small Partido Innovación y Unidad (Innovation and Unity Party). “But there will be ‘economical understandings.’ It’s going to be an agreement based on convenience, and not on the thinking about the best interests of the country.”
But it’s difficult to see Hernández building a bridge to either the Liberals or to LIBRE.
LIBRE is certain to oppose Hernández at every step, especially if Castro de Zelaya digs in with her refusal to concede the election and especially if she has good reason for protest. Even without Castro de Zelaya, the new party seems to have sparked a genuine political realignment that isn’t likely to disappear with one election or the political stardom of the Zelayas.
“If Xiomara loses, it might be the end of Xiomara, but it certainly won’t be the end of Mel Zelaya, and it won’t be the end of LIBRE,” said Jonathán Roussel, a journalist in Tegucigalpa who’s been reporting on Honduran politics for five decades. “It’s very difficult to organize a political party, and this has always been such an attractive option for the left, so it will continue to have a life for many years.”
Honduras’ precarious finances will also clip Hernández’ wings. With a nearly 4 percent budget deficit in 2012 and a public debt of 35 percent of GDP, Honduras can barely pay its public employees.
Financial strains have also limited the ability of both the national and municipal governments to pay police and military officials enough to discourage collusion with drug traffickers. Financing a new military police force, too, means less money for reducing poverty and unemployment, building roads and hospitals, and crafting economic policy to reduce income inequality in Honduras.
Though Hernández (or Castro de Zelaya) was always likely to seek a financing deal with the IMF, the terms of a loan are likely to be strenuous, including cuts to public salaries and certainly to the federal budget.
Inertia works both ways, and it was always likely that the next president of Honduras would face huge obstacles. But now that it looks like the National Party is likely to win a second consecutive presidential term for the first time in living memory, inertia could also be a force that limits the worst fears of Hernández’s opponents.