A voter in Honduras

A voter in Honduras. (AP)

LatAm in Focus: Democratic Tests in Honduras and Nicaragua

By Chase Harrison and Carin Zissis

International Crisis Group’s Tiziano Breda covers the two elections while El Milenio’s Juan Pablo Sabillón covers efforts to combat young Honduran voters’ apathy.

Two Central American countries will go to the polls in November for potentially combustive elections that will test the quality of democracy in the region. 

Tiziano Breda

First up is Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega seeks to guarantee himself a fourth consecutive term in office. Ahead of the election, he has jailed most of the opposition candidates, clearing the way for him to claim victory. Still, Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst at the International Crisis Group, believes the anti-Ortega movement can make its voice heard on November 7. “The greatest challenge is for the opposition movements to regroup and renurture the 2018 sentiment,” he told AS/COA Online’s Chase Harrison, referring to the months-long anti-government uprising that rocked the country. No matter the outcome, Breda said the international community must stand up against Ortega’s authoritarianism with “a more coordinated, clear, and robust response” than it has executed thus far. 

Then, on November 28, Hondurans will select a new president. That race saw a major shift in October when the opposition consolidated behind the Libre party’s Xiomara Castro. She’s running to unseat the governing National Party, which has been in power since the 2009 coup that ousted Castro’s husband Manuel Zelaya from the presidency. The coup hangs heavy over this election, as does the previous presidential election in 2017, when Castro was on the opposition’s ticket to serve as vice president. As Breda notes, “The perception was that there was actually fraud [in 2017] and the feeling is that this time around the National Party will try and meddle with the election again to remain in power.” 

“We've moved past the times where corruption allegations and scandals moved or shifted the voting intentions." —Tiziano Breda

Those events, combined with the impact of the pandemic and the two hurricanes that hit the country last year, are “translating into a greater distrust in the political system, in the electoral authorities, and in democracy itself, and can translate into greater abstention, or even a desire to leave the country eventually when people do not feel that there's any possibility to bring about change,” explained Breda. 

If Honduran dissatisfaction with democracy runs high, the problem is particularly acute among young voters. A poll conducted prior to Honduras’ March 2021 primaries found that 61 percent of millennials didn’t plan on voting, and the same portion wanted to leave the country due to a lack of economic opportunities.

Juan Pablo Sabillón

Combating young voters’ apathy is a primary goal for Juan Pablo Sabillon, founder of El Milenio, a non-partisan platform that seeks to motivate and inform Honduras’ sizable youth vote. Sabillon was inspired to create El Milenio during the unrest following the 2017 election when the San Pedro Sula native was, he said, “literally watching my city burn.” He recognized that the election had disenfranchised young voters, saying, “Basically the inspiration [for El Milenio] was really just the absence of a platform or a forum where young people could engage in civilized dialogue.”

With an eye to the 2021 vote, El Milenio shares election information through podcasts and social media, as well as launching Emil, a WhatsApp bot voters can use to learn about legislative candidates’ platforms to help them distinguish between the plethora of names on the ballot. “The decisions that most greatly impact hundreds every day are taken in Congress and people don’t know anything about their candidates,” Sabillon told AS/COA’s Carin Zissis. “We talked with hundreds young people and, yes, corruption is a concern. But they just don’t know the basic information about a candidate.” 

“I think November will be the most important election in [Honduras’] history.” —Juan Pablo Sabillon

For Sabillon, this election is a make-or-break one for Honduras. He explained that the country spent years building its democracy only to witness backsliding over the past dozen years, concluding: “If we don't achieve a Congress that can help improve checks and balances, pick a new judiciary, and enforce rule of law—or even rebuild the rule of law—Honduras is going to go through very tough times.”

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Luisa Leme produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.