On December 12, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced the final results of Honduras’s contested election, awarding the presidency to ruling National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández with 37% of the vote. Despite evidence of significant irregularities, the TSE refused to conduct a partial ballot recount as demanded by LIBRE (the Freedom and Refoundation Party) and PAC (the Anti-Corruption Party), whose candidates finished second and fourth, respectively, with a combined total of 42% of the vote.
While LIBRE has petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court to nullify the election, few expect this to happen, given the current regime’s recent stacking of the Court with conservative members—an initiative led by Hernández himself, as president of the national Congress. Meanwhile, Hernández, whose party has consolidated broad control over government institutions since the 2009 coup, is gearing up to lead what has been described as the most authoritarian Honduran administration in memory.
Still, Hernández faces formidable obstacles. He will assume control of a nation struggling with major security and economic crises, under the cloud of a tainted election. He will confront a changing political and social landscape, including a fragmented Congress, a potentially powerful opposition party in the form of LIBRE, and a resilient grassroots resistance movement.
In this context, continued conflict and repression is virtually guaranteed. But with a coordinated oppositional strategy both in the “halls of power” and in the streets, the anti-coup resistance may have an opportunity to curtail the most egregious abuses of economic and political power, and even to advance its own agenda.
As commentator Kevin Lees has noted, Hernández is a president “without mandate, majority, or money.” He will preside over a severely divided electorate, with more than 60% of the voters rejecting his approach and two parties, representing more than 40% of the vote, challenging the legitimacy of his election.
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Despite the supportive pronouncements of high-level international observer missions (such as the OAS and EU) that found the election to be generally “free and fair,” the mounting evidence of voter intimidation, suppression, coercion, and fraud, and of politically-targeted violence against LIBRE supporters, has succeeded in casting a cloud over the vote. Other prominent voices, such as those of dissenting EU delegate Leo Gabriel and Spanish ex-judge Baltasar Garzón, bolstered by the reports of numerous human rights and solidarity organizations, have lent credence to LIBRE’s allegations that as many as 20% of the voting table tabulations are suspicious.
In fact, even the OAS and EU reports, upon careful reading, document numerous irregularities and systemic flaws in the electoral process. Whether or not LIBRE’s nullification strategies prevail, doubts about the legitimacy of Hernandez’s presidency will likely persist for some time, at home and abroad.
With this weakened mandate, tackling Honduras’s twin security and economic crises will be no small challenge for Hernández. Honduras faces record-high levels of violence, with 20 murders per day and the highest homicide rate in the world, fueled by drug trafficking, street gangs, paramilitary activity, and police/government corruption. The controversial domestic military police force created by Hernández, as president of the Congress, has not succeeded in addressing these problems, but has bolstered large landholders and businesses in their efforts to suppress popular resistance to corporate land grabs.
Closely linked to the security crisis is Honduras’s ongoing economic and fiscal crisis. With a budget deficit of 4% in 2012, the post-coup government has continued to wrack up public debt, now equal to 35% of GDP. With anti-crime measures consuming another 10% of GDP, the government can barely afford to pay its public employees, let alone fund desperately needed anti-poverty and economic development programs.
Since the 2009 coup, poverty levels and the gap between rich and poor have increased dramatically, with Honduras now showing the greatest wealth disparities (and the lowest per capita income) in Latin America. Hernández has promised to continue the post-coup government’s austerity and privatization policies, allowing the plundering of natural resources by transnational corporations that have driven the economy to the brink of disaster.
Faced with these giant problems, Hernández will confront the most divided Congress in Honduran history. The emergence of LIBRE (and to a lesser extent, PAC) has broken the traditional dominance of the elitist National and Liberal parties, the conservative duopoly that has governed Honduras for more than a century. Unlike the current Congress, where the National Party’s 71 votes (out of 128 total) have assured majority control for the ruling party, with 45 Liberal Party votes providing a ready margin for constitutional changes that require a 2/3 vote, in the new Congress power is fragmented. The National Party has only 47 seats and the Liberals 26, while LIBRE has 39 and PAC 13 (with 3 small parties having 1 vote each).
While the National and Liberal parties still jointly control more than a majority (57%) of the Congress, an alliance between LIBRE and PAC, representing 41% of the votes, should at least be able to block the most egregious initiatives requiring a constitutional amendment. Alliances with the smaller parties and some Liberals could create a bloc large enough to push the Congress in a different direction—including, for example, electoral reform, and perhaps a rollback of some blatantly illegal judicial and executive appointments.
While continuing to challenge the electoral results, LIBRE is moving on to negotiate its role as a major opposition party in this new Congressional landscape, led by ex-president and Party chief Mel Zelaya, the newly elected deputy from Olancho. Within LIBRE, there is ongoing debate about the relative merits of participating in the Congressional executive junta (to be appointed in January) vs. remaining as a pure opposition party. Sources indicate that Zelaya will cede the presidency of the Congress (if offered) to the Liberals, with the goal of creating a united opposition. As well, ongoing tensions between the Party’s social movement and ex-Liberal Party constituencies, and now delegates, are likely to play out in the Congressional arena.
Meanwhile, the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), the broad-based coalition of social movements that gave birth to LIBRE in 2011, is struggling to redefine its relationship to the political arm that has now become a formal opposition party. In the days immediately following the election, tension arose between some grassroots constituencies who wanted to mobilize against electoral fraud, and Party leaders who restrained their actions until a more politically opportune moment. Inside the movement, LIBRE’s unsuccessful (for the moment) presidential campaign has reopened an old tactical schism between those who have promoted the electoral strategy, and others who want to keep the movement’s energies focused in the streets and communities, deepening the process of change and avoiding the liabilities of political compromise, manipulation, and failed expectations.
Despite the repression unleashed by the post-coup government—including the murders of at least 22 LIBRE candidates, activists, and supporters since May 2012, and politically-targeted violence against popular organizations, journalists, and human rights defenders, the resistance movement has endured and grown. In the Aguán Valley, campesinos continue to occupy 26 farms on 3,000 acres of contested land appropriated by palm oil magnates. In Rio Blanco, indigenous groups have maintained a blockade for eight months protesting construction of a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their communities. Thousands of teachers have mobilized against the privatization of education, and have gone on strike, along with doctors and other public sector workers, when the government failed to pay them for months at a time.
In the wake of the elections, university students have emerged as a newly-energized component of the resistance. On Election Day, thousands of students sacrificed their right to vote to serve as polling table custodians, a function previously carried out by the Church. Many became disillusioned, enraged, and radicalized as they witnessed first- hand the irregularities and abuses documented by many observer reports. Students were the first to take to streets, ahead of LIBRE party directives, to protest electoral fraud. Although they were violently repressed by police, they continued to demonstrate throughout the week.
Also since the election, the post-coup regime has stepped up its efforts to ram a few more controversial laws through the National Party-controlled Congress while it still has the votes. These include provisions granting constitutional standing to Hernández’s new domestic military police force (which currently operates in violation of the Constitution), facilitating the latest version of Economic Development and Employment Zones (sovereign districts to incentivize transnational investment, that bypass labor and environmental protections), and authorizing more bonds to keep the government afloat (even though it has no way of paying the debt it currently owes). Next up on the agenda could be an austerity and tax package to cement desperately needed financing from the International Monetary Fund.
Whether Honduras’s social movements can succeed in curtailing these and other punitive measures, through the combined efforts of a viable political opposition and massive popular resistance, is the challenge that lies ahead.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s biweekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents). She was a credentialed election observer in Honduras with the National Lawyers Guild.