Elections in Honduras are taking place as the Central American country experiences some of the highest rates of crime, corruption, violence and impunity. These circumstances, however, have also garnered some of the highest levels of resistance and electoral participation from the left.
This Sunday’s presidential and municipal elections also represent a series of “firsts” in the country’s suffrage and political systems. They are the first time a sitting president has been allowed to run for re-election, the first time several center-left parties coalesced to give the entrenched, right-wing National Party of Honduras, PNH, a competitive run, and the first time they will be the most observed and audited in Honduran history.
In order to understand these “firsts,” one only has to look at the legacy of corruption and violence that has plagued the country in recent years.
The term of current president and PNH candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez has been marked by corruption and crime since he first won the presidency in 2013.
His election campaign was fraught with corruption and embezzlement as Hernandez and his party reportedly siphoned off US$90 million from the Honduran Social Security Institute to pay for his campaign against candidate Xiomara Castro, wife of former President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya, a democratically-elected leftist, was ousted in a U.S.-supported coup in 2009.
In total, the PNH reportedly stole US$300 million from the social security system while Hernandez was president of the Honduran National Assembly. Hernandez claimed the party received US$150,000 in illicit funds, but took no responsibility.
He helped stack the Supreme Court with PNH supporters in 2012, facilitating the court’s unconstitutional 2015 vote to change the country’s magna carta to allow elected officials to run for a second consecutive term. This is the first election cycle to allow re-election bids, and Hernandez is taking advantage.
Consequently, Honduran citizens have lost faith in government institutions and the state’s flimsy rule of law. Transparency International’s annual study of citizen perception of corruption found that in 2014, Honduras ranked 125 out of 176, making it one of the worst in the world.
Thousands of frustrated and fed-up Hondurans protested consistently throughout 2015 and 2016 against the multitude of government corruption scandals, human rights violations and sheer unwillingness to create transparency and accountability within institutions. Guatemalans staged similar and simultaneous protests, forcing former President Otto Perez out of office in 2015. These events were dubbed the “Central American Spring.”
Hernandez since claims he wants to open dialogue with social movements and increase government transparency. He allowed the government to create a commission to investigative the country’s staggering levels of crime and impunity. Yet, critics say it has no autonomy from Hernandez or his political allies. Similarly the Organization of American States created the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras in 2015, but it has no mandate or leverage to investigate cases. It can only guide local investigators.
Hernandez promised to put a “soldier on every corner” during his first presidential run to combat crime and corruption, which he has nearly done. Honduran activist Gaspar Sanchez, however, was nearly killed by Honduran military when he peacefully protested the murder of environmental Indigenous activist Berta Caceres.
The country’s Armed Forces aren’t exempt from controversy either. The U.S. government has reportedly given approximately US$20 million each year to Honduran military officials since 2014, and US$200 million in total between 2010 and 2016.
The Guardian reported that in 2015, U.S. Congress opened an investigation into 300 U.S. personnel and security forces training several Honduran agency personnel, including a security forces sect called FUSINA. This sect is directly linked to Caceres’ murder and has been accused of circulating a hit list of social activists to kill.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said 500 FUSINA agents had been allowed to use “U.S. helicopters and planes, despite allegations regarding the agency’s repeated involvement in human-rights violations.” Meanwhile, Washington continues to support Hernandez’s grip on power. With major protests in the backdrop last year, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras announced that “relations between the United States and Honduras are perhaps the best in history.”
Clearly, Hernandez and other Honduran elites have domestic and international support. He’s also playing his hand in a state structure where corruption and impunity feed each other, making institutionalized corruption the only game in town.
In June, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study finding that the Honduran state is rooted in operational corruption and violence that benefits and reproduces elites, while the population suffers.
Hernandez’s term has been rocked by the killings of human rights and environmental activists. In 2014, leftist campesina activist Margarita Murillo was gunned down. She protested against the right-wing government that took over Honduras after it ousted Zelaya and helped form the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party, known as Libre, before she was assassinated.
By 2016, Hernandez’s 3rd year in office, Honduras recorded the highest number of killings of environmental and land rights activists, most of whom were killed by state security forces or domestic corporations that back Hernandez, and vice versa. An independent commission recently revealed that the Honduran military under Hernandez and Energy Development SA, known as DESA, carried out Caceres’ 2016 assassination.
In May, the current administration awarded Honduras’ most controversial agribusiness, the Dinant palm oil company, the prestigious Honduran Exporter's Prize. The company was awarded around the same time a lawsuit was brought against it and its security personnel by campesino organizations. They accused the company of “murder, torture, assault and detention” of rural farmers who fought against Dinant exploitation in palm oil plantations throughout the country.
Since the military and right-wing PNH took over the government in 2009, 130 rural campesinos have been killed, along with at least 215 LGBTQ activists.
Organized crime has skyrocketed during the administrations of former President Porfirio Lobo and Hernandez. Citizens were reportedly forced to pay out US$200 million to Honduran gangs in 2014, or face violence and possible death.
Gangs killed 350 bus drivers and public transport workers between 2011 and 2015 and 220 taxi drivers between 2012 and 2015. They regularly burn public buses in the streets of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, in retribution for non-payment. In 2011 and 2012, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, and in 2014, an average of 66 out of every 100,000 residents were killed.
Although 2017 homicide numbers have dropped, they remain astronomical.
As these egregiously violent crimes go unsolved, perpetrators remain immune to conviction. Thus, many Hondurans feel forced to flee to the United States, Mexico and Nicaragua.
The Opposition Alliance
Hernandez’s main opponent is Salvador Nasralla from the Opposition Alliance.
Nasralla is a former Pepsi-Cola executive and television personality, and gathers support from several parties. The Opposition Alliance is a coalition of three parties: Libre, the Anti-Corruption Party, known as PAC, and the Innovation and Unity Party, known as PINU.
The Guardian described Libre as a conglomeration of “trade union and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, campesino and Indigenous organisations, youth and feminist groups, teachers and intellectuals as well as former Liberals who opposed the coup.” PAC drives an anti-corruption and transparency campaign.
The Opposition Alliance has the support and participation of socialists, social democrats and centrists who want to defeat the PNH monopoly on power.
Importantly, the Opposition Alliance represents the first time that center-left parties in Honduras have coalesced to run the same candidates on the same platform.
During the 2013 presidential elections, leftist and anti-corruption factions ran separately. Nasralla ran under his self-formed PAC and won 13.5 percent of the votes. Castro ran with Libre and received 28.7 percent of votes.
At that time, professor and Libre member Carlos Diaz told the Guardian, “In 33 years of working for social change in Honduras, this is the first time we have a party which truly represents every part of society, something I never imagined possible.”
“No matter what happens on Sunday, we have succeeded in mobilizing communities long abandoned or disaffected by Honduran mainstream politics."
This time, Castro is Nasralla’s running mate, the vice presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance.
The coalition is bringing together activists and everyday people who insist on a functional government and want to get rid of corruption and impunity. It is expected to garner at least 22 percent of votes, some of the most competitive numbers for leftists in Honduran history.
The Opposition Alliance platform consists of a 10-point plan to redirect the country. Most importantly, the coalition wants to call a referendum for the public to vote on a National Constituent Assembly and to create a United Nations-backed anti-corruption and political transparency commission, much like the one established in Guatemala.
Here’s their 10-point plan:
- Refoundation of the Democratic state, which includes the eradication of corruption and a National Constituent Assembly.
- Construction of an alternative economic model focused on dignified work.
- Strengthening of security and safety in the country, using a community-run model.
- Social development in the areas of education, healthcare, culture, arts and sports.
- Human rights for women, youth and “vulnerable populations.”
- Sustainable energy and environmental regulations.
- International relations based on mutual respect
- Infrastructure, sanitation and clean water.
- Maritime and agriculture reforms (land for campesinos, fishers).
- Forestation and planting of trees.
This will also be the country’s most audited and observed election in history with over 1,500 national and 300 international observers. Citizens will vote not only for a president and vice president, but also for 129 National Assembly members and nearly 300 mayors across the country.
There are an estimated 30,000 candidates running across the country, making Sunday’s suffrage a monumental national effort.
Meanwhile, tensions and violence continue to increase as two Opposition Alliance activists and a Liberal Party activist were murdered within 24 hours.