Honduras: What to Expect from its National Elections?
November 21, 2013
This Sunday (November 24), Hondurans will head to the voting booths to elect 128 members of the National Congress, 298 mayors and vice-mayors, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament—and, most importantly, the country’s next president.
As of the most recent polls, two candidates were neck-and-neck for the win: Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party and Xiomara Castro de Zelaya of the new Libre Party.
The elections mark Honduras’s anticipated return to politics-as-usual—something that hasn’t happened since the 2009 constitutional crisis and removal from power of then-president Manuel Zelaya.
And even in periods of relative political stability, Honduran elections have long been the subject of controversy over a lack of transparency and alleged fraud. Though international organizations will be closely monitoring the elections this weekend, it remains likely that the results will be heavily contested, and the public remains highly skeptical of the legitimacy of the electoral process.
The public’s confidence in the elections, though, may well determine the next president’s capacity to implement much-needed reforms—an outcome in the interests of Honduras and the United States.
So what will the upcoming elections mean for Honduras?
Q1: What has happened in recent years in the Honduran political system?
A1: The ongoing irregularity of the Honduran political system dates back to the country’s 2009 constitutional crisis. That crisis began when then-president Zelaya called for a referendum on constitutional reforms that would eliminate the one-term limit on the presidency.
Under the current constitution, however, only the National Congress has the power to call a Constitutional Assembly—so the Supreme Court ordered Zelaya to cancel the referendum. When Zelaya pushed forward, the military removed him from power.
Zelaya was exiled to Costa Rica, and the Honduran Congress swore Roberto Micheletti in as interim president, a move that was regarded by many regional governments as controversial, creating a de facto government that would remain in place until later that year.
That November, the government held presidential elections. The victor, current president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa of the National Party, was sworn into office in 2010. His presidency has been met with mixed reviews in the international human rights and democracy discourse.
This year’s elections, then, are seen as the first robust test of the Honduran electoral system since the 2009 crisis, and they are thus given significant weight in evaluating the future of electoral democracy in Honduras.
Q2: What’s at stake for the United States in these elections?
A2: While the political stability of our hemispheric neighbors is always a U.S. priority, Honduras’s unique circumstances make these elections particularly relevant to the United States—especially in the realms of immigration, investment, and transnational crime.
According to the U.S. Department of State, an estimated 1 million Hondurans currently reside in the United States—and as many of 60 percent of them are believed to be undocumented. The resulting importance of immigration on the bilateral agenda means that domestic politics in Honduras—and their effects on standards of living and migration flows—are necessarily of interest to the United States.
Also at stake is the substantial volume of U.S. investment in Honduras. In 2011, U.S. foreign direct investment in the Central American country totaled US$930 million. The security of these investments, which are concentrated largely in the transport, warehousing, communications, and manufacturing sectors, is a priority for the United States, so to the extent that this election could improve (or damage) that security, the electoral outcome further affects U.S. commercial interests.
And most important among our interests in Honduras is the country’s ability to combat the transnational criminal groups that continue to bring enormous quantities of illicit substances northward from Colombia and Venezuela. Currently, Honduras continues to suffer through challenges in violent crime challenges and the rule of law—and within Honduras there are routes frequented by drug traffickers. Any improvement in the rule of law could weaken transnational criminals, long among the United States’ chief goals in the region.
Q3: What can we expect on Sunday, and what will those results imply?
A3: In all likelihood, either Castro de Zelaya or Hernández will emerge victorious after Sunday’s elections, given the poor showing of the other candidates in the polls so far.
Hernández, the current president of the National Congress, offers institutional continuity, having long been a part of the Honduran government.
If elected, Hernández has pledged to promote stability through the creation of a new militarized police force, tasked with working with the country’s military. And economically, Hernández aims to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) within six months of assuming the presidency, with an eye to eliminating the country’s debt without raising taxes.
Castro brings a different kind of continuity to the table. The wife of ousted president Zelaya, Castro helped lead the resistance to the removal of her husband from power—but many fear that her presidency would be focused on settling old scores, in the process intensifying an already volatile situation. And many speculate that if Castro wins, former president Zelaya would have perhaps undue influence in the presidential decision-making.
If elected, Castro has promised to improve Honduran stability with a new, community-based approach. Her economic agenda is focused on combating poverty by improving the country’s infrastructure and education system. And most central to her platform is a constitutional reform plan aimed at increasing minority voices in Honduran politics.
Even if Castro wins the presidency, it is worth noting that her Libre Party, the first third-party to rise to prominence in the traditionally two-party Honduran political system, is unlikely to win a majority in the National Congress, so her constitutional reform goals are unlikely to be realized.
Conclusion: The current situation in Honduras demands strong, committed leadership. With corrupt law enforcement feared by the public, high rates of violent crime, poorly-run institutions, widespread drug trafficking, and weak rule of law, the challenges Honduras faces are many—and addressing them is an urgent need.
Overcoming those challenges will not be easy—far from it. But doing so will be still more difficult under a government that allows ideology or historical differences to supersede the resolution of the country’s problems on the national agenda.
While both candidates promise change and solutions, neither is likely to garner a majority of the vote. Without a powerful policy mandate, both would-be presidents are sure to face challenges should Hondurans elect them this weekend. And with the problems they will be tasked with fixing, we can only hope that the solutions they seek are inclusive, considered, and—most of all—effective.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catherine Krege, intern scholar with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.