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Honduras Update: The 2013 Election

Honduras voters

Hondurans will elect a new president on November 24. (Image: AP Photo)

November 21, 2013

On November 24, Hondurans head to the polls to elect a new president and members of the unicameral legislature. This election remains in the shadow of a 2009 coup and a contentious presidential vote that brought President Porfirio Lobo to office. And this year, voters will see a familiar name on the ballot; Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, seeks the presidency. Running on the ticket of a new party, she could become the first female leader of the country, as well as representing a break from the two-party system. But she faces a statistical tie in the polls, with the former president of Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández. The next leader faces considerable challenges with poverty and insecurity, in addition to bolstering democratic institutions.

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Background: What the Next President Inherits

In an article for WPR, COA’s Eric Farnsworth analyzes how the outcome of Honduras' election will impact its relations with the United States.

This election sees voters selecting a replacement for Lobo, a president who spent his early period in office battling for legitimacy. Although he won the 2009 election by a wide margin and popular majority, the election was held by an interim government that overthrew and exiled President Manuel Zelaya five months earlier, leading the Organization of American States to suspend Honduras’ membership. While several countries (including Colombia, Panama, Peru, and the United States) recognized Lobo’s victory and administration, others (such as Brazil and Venezuela) would not. Lobo sought to move the country forward by granting amnesty to the interim government and to Zelaya—whose ouster came after he sought a constitutional referendum that critics say would have led to presidential reelection. But it took almost two years since the coup and a deal brokered by Colombia and Venezuela to pave the way for Zelaya’s return to the country and Honduras’ return to the OAS.

Honduras’ year of political turmoil coincided with the global economic crisis, and the economy contracted by 2.4 percent in 2009. While the country saw GDP growth since then—ranging from 3.7 percent to 3.9 percent from 2010 to 2012, per the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean—growth has yet to return to pre-coup levels. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates poverty rates rose from 58.8 percent to 61.9 percent between 2009 and 2011 (the last year with available data). The UN Development Programme (UNDP) says 54.1 percent of the population was underemployed last year.

Sadly, in 2012 the country ranked first worldwide when it came to one unfortunate indicator: the homicide rate. This high level of insecurity has been estimated to come at a cost of 10 percent of GDP. The Economist reports that Honduras’ growing budget deficit leaves the government lacking funds and forced to delay payments for public employees, including policemen.

Check out AS/COA Online's guide to four Latin American elections this fall, including the vote in Honduras.

These and other challenges face the victor of the November 24 election. A recent Latinobarometro poll shows that Hondurans may have limited hope for what comes next; the country has one of Latin America’s lowest levels of confidence in democracy or the government’s ability to resolve problems. Just 26 percent of Hondurans believe that the economic situation will improve in the long term. At the same time, the 2009 coup continues to cast its shadow, particularly given that Castro, Zelaya’s wife, is a main presidential contender. She represents a new political party; a Congressional Research Service Report published in June found that “[e]arly polling suggests that Honduras’ traditional two-party system is fracturing,” meaning more parties—and a new dynamic—could be represented in Congress when the new government takes office come January 2014.

In the Running: The Presidential Candidates

Eight candidates are running for president, with two frontrunners: Xiomara Castro de Zelaya and Juan Orlando Hernández, with the two in a statistical tie. The most recent poll, a CID-Gallup survey published October 24, indicated that Hernández led by a very slim margin with 28 percent, compared to 27 percent for Castro. (In Honduras, polling is forbidden within the month leading up to the presidential election.) From January until October, Castro had led CID-Gallup’s polls. Pollster Paradigma had also put Castro in the lead until October, when Hernández pulled ahead.

Castro, Zelaya’s wife, is running on the Freedom and Reestablishment Party (LIBRE) ticket. This party developed as a result of the coup; it was created in 2011 by the National Popular Resistance Front, a left-leaning coalition of organizations aiming to reinstate Zelaya. It legally became a political party in March 2012. Castro wants to hold a constituent assembly to change the Constitution to “increase popular participation” in government. She supports demilitarizing the country and creating community police forces, as well as investing in health and education. She has expressed “unconditional” support for Petrocaribe, which provides preferential oil agreements, and could potentially boost Honduras’ participation in the Venezuelan-led group.

Hernández, of the National Party (one of the country’s two main established parties), served as president of the Honduran Congress until June, when he stepped down to campaign. While he was in that role, Congress deepened control over the country’s highest court, overseeing the dismissal of four out of five justices in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Under Hernández’s leadership, legislators passed a number of laws previously deemed unconstitutional, as well as a constitutional reform giving Congress the power to impeach the president, Supreme Court justices, legislators, and other high-level officials.

As far as his campaign platform goes, Hernández aims to create a new military police force to fight rising crime, as well as to target drug trafficking by sea and air. He also wants to launch a program for youth employment which would invest $52 million in creating 100,000 jobs for those between the ages of 16 and 29 who lack employment and who aren’t in school. He survived a helicopter accident while campaigning on November 16.

The other two candidates polling behind Castro and Hernández are Mauricio Villeda and Salvador Nasralla. The CID-Gallup poll placed Villeda in third with 17 percent, followed by Nasralla with 9 percent. Villeda, son of the late former Honduran President Ramón Villeda Morales, represents the Liberal Party—Honduras’ other established, main political party. A career lawyer, his platform includes fighting corruption, promoting small- and medium-sized businesses, boosting employment, and attracting foreign investment.

Running on the Anticorruption Party ticket, Nasralla is a sportscaster. He created the party himself in 2012. He wants to boost foreign investment, tourism, and infrastructure. He opposes militarizing the police force.

The Election by the Numbers

In Honduras, presidents are elected to serve a single four-year term; reelection is not allowed. Presidential candidates must be Honduran-born and at least 30 years old. They cannot be a church or religious official, nor can they have been in active military service during the 12 months prior to the election. They also cannot be a judge, attorney general, a presidential appointee, or a spouse or relative of the current president.

There are no runoff elections; the winning presidential candidate must win a majority of votes. The president-elect will be sworn in on January 27. Hondurans will also elect all 128 representatives of the country’s unicameral legislature for four-year terms, as well as mayors and vice-mayors to the country’s 298 municipalities.

Though voting is mandatory in Honduras, about 7 out of 10 Hondurans said they would vote in the election, according to an October CID-Gallup poll. During the last presidential election in 2009, only 50 percent of voters turned out to the polls.

During this year’s vote, an estimated 750 foreign election observers will participate in the electoral process, including from the Carter Center, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the UNDP. Political parties also accredit observers; around 300 domestic and international observers—including activists and members of solidarity groups—will work in this capacity for LIBRE alone.