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Elections in Honduras: Polarization, Populism, and Violence

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Nov 20, 2013, 12:44 pm

EspañolIt is no wonder that polarization and populism, two prevailing evils that cause devastating effects on Latin America’s democratic development, have such success in a small and underdeveloped country such as Honduras. Together with Bolivia, Haiti, and Nicaragua, Honduras is one of the poorest nations on the continent, with most of the 8.5 million residents undergoing severe difficulties with education, access to public utilities, drug-trafficking, and other calamities such as gang violence. Its murder rate reached 85.5 per 100,000 million inhabitants in 2012, ranking among the most violent non-warring countries worldwide.

Political polarization has put its mark on the Honduran campaigns, even though there are eight presidential candidates running in elections to be held next Sunday, November 24. Along with a new president, constituents will elect three vice-presidents, 128 deputies to the National Congress, and 298 municipal representatives.

The actual (and fierce) struggle, however, will take place between the conservative ruling party’s candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández of the Partido Nacional, and the opposition left-wing candidate, Xiomara Castro of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre). The latter is the wife of former president Zelaya, who intends to retake power through his support for her. Only a few days away from the elections, however, there is huge uncertainty about who may succeed Porfirio Lobo.

Not only are both parties and candidates seeking to polarize voters and Honduran society, they use counterproductive and superficial populism at every possible opportunity. The high and unaccountable spending of the electoral campaigns, in particular, is an offense against millions of Hondurans who can hardly survive. The abuse of populism has also exceeded politicians promising what they do not have; the populist approach has gone so far as to coarsely invoke God and religion.

It is hard to predict how and to what extent the current polarization and levels of populism may end up favoring which candidate, but the polls — those published in October, before their publication was forbidden — have shown a technical draw: conservative candidate Hernández obtained 28 percent, while revolutionary Castro de Zelaya reached 27 percent.

At the same time, violence has arisen in this electoral campaign. So much so that a group of US senators have recently submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, stating their concern about “reports of threats against journalists and even threats of murder against candidates.” At least partially, this explains why the elections will be overseen by 250 international observers from the European Union, the United States, and the OAS — despite the fact that the Supreme Electoral Court of Honduras has guaranteed these will be the most transparent elections in the country’s history.

Whatever the result of the election, the winner will face huge challenges, particularly if he should fail to obtain a majority in the National Assembly. From the political and economic perspective, it will be hard to deal with the many pressing national concerns, especially the scourge of violence. President Porfirio Lobo himself has admitted he was unable to fight it, despite the support of the Policía Militar de Orden Público (Military Police, PMOP), composed of around 5,000 troops selected among the best members of the army and trained to protect the population. In addition, the candidate who takes office in January 2014 will confront a country experiencing an economic crisis exacerbated by high domestic and foreign debt.

Additionally, should Xiomara Castro be elected, she will have to struggle in order to fulfill her main electoral promise: calling a National Constitutional Assembly to amend the Constitution. That would be based on the “revolutionary and Bolivarian” government style, like those prevailing in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Half the country opposes this proposal, as well as a majority of the armed forces — the same forces that removed her husband “Mel” Zelaya from office in 2009.

Although silenced for diplomatic reasons, a new presidential victory for the Marxist Zelayistas in Honduras would also trigger an alert and concern among the her Central American neighbors — not to mention Honduras’s chief ally, the United States, for which the presence of the Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua is enough of a concern. Like Zelaya, Ortega is seeking to amend the Constitution and follow the trend of the rest of the members of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA). Investor concern is of no less importance; as analyst Guillermo Peña Panting has rightly pointed out in another PanAm Post feature article, “markets believe that Hernandez will be relatively more prone to economic freedom and clear rules than Castro.”

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.