Explainer

Honduras’s Pivotal Election

The country’s opposition finally has a shot at ousting the party that has ruled since a 2009 coup—if voting isn’t rigged.

By , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University, and , a visiting professor of international studies at Marymount Manhattan College.
Supporters of Honduran presidential candidate for the LIBRE Party Xiomara Castro take part in the campaign’s closing event in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 21.
Supporters of Honduran presidential candidate for the LIBRE Party Xiomara Castro take part in the campaign’s closing event in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 21. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega has become the poster child for Central America’s democratic erosion. Ortega, who has been in power since 2007, just claimed a fourth straight term in office after jailing seven opposition candidates, and most governments in Latin America and Europe—in addition to the United States—quickly condemned his election as a sham.

But democracy has also eroded dramatically in Honduras, Nicaragua’s neighbor to the north, while attracting far less international attention.

More quietly—but no less effectively—than Ortega, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his ruling National Party have dismantled democratic institutions, and drug cartels have allegedly penetrated the top echelons of government. U.S. prosecutors allege Hernández received $1 million in secret campaign contributions from Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and Hernández’s younger brother, Tony, is serving a life sentence for drug-related charges.

In recent years, Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega has become the poster child for Central America’s democratic erosion. Ortega, who has been in power since 2007, just claimed a fourth straight term in office after jailing seven opposition candidates, and most governments in Latin America and Europe—in addition to the United States—quickly condemned his election as a sham.

But democracy has also eroded dramatically in Honduras, Nicaragua’s neighbor to the north, while attracting far less international attention.

More quietly—but no less effectively—than Ortega, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his ruling National Party have dismantled democratic institutions, and drug cartels have allegedly penetrated the top echelons of government. U.S. prosecutors allege Hernández received $1 million in secret campaign contributions from Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and Hernández’s younger brother, Tony, is serving a life sentence for drug-related charges.

After the National Party captured national office in 2010 following a 2009 coup, Honduras became one of the most violent countries on Earth. It has descended into a crisis that pushed hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

On Nov. 28, when the country holds elections for president, Congress, and local officials, Hondurans will decide whether the National Party will hold onto power or whether their country will finally turn a new page. Unlike in Nicaragua, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. While the National Party’s well-oiled political machine puts the opposition at a serious disadvantage, the opposition has momentarily overcome its habitual infighting—giving it a real shot at victory.

Regardless of which side emerges on top, however, stable democracy in Honduras remains a long way off. Forced to choose between the corrupt status quo or the possibility of a radical, opposition-led upheaval, many Hondurans will continue to vote with their feet, seeking opportunities abroad they are systematically denied at home.


Back up. What happened in the 2009 coup?

After Honduras’s 1982 transition to democracy from a series of military dictatorships, the country experienced a few decades of relative stability, with the Liberal and National Parties regularly trading power. But a handful of powerful families controlled most of the country’s political and economic institutions, which did little to improve the majority’s living conditions. Meanwhile, human rights protections only marginally improved, and selective assassinations of government critics continued.

In 2005, Hondurans elected Manuel Zelaya, a Liberal, president. At first, he did not seem poised to ruffle the status quo. Yet jockeying between Zelaya and his party’s old guard over control ultimately led him to forge unexpected alliances with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and then-Cuban President Fidel Castro as well as attempt to replace Honduras’s constitution. The last move proved too much for conservative business groups, so the National Party—and many within Zelaya’s own party—united to oust him in the 2009 coup.

The military then shuttled Zelaya to Costa Rica and interim President Roberto Micheletti of the Liberal Party took office. Zelaya made multiple unsuccessful attempts to return permanently to Honduras before going into exile in the Dominican Republic. Yet it wasn’t until the 2011 Cartagena Accord, signed between Zelaya and National Party President Porfirio Lobo Sosa—who took office after Micheletti—that the ousted ex-president secured his return to Honduras. Zelaya remains a deeply polarizing figure.


Who are Hondurans’ choices for president now, and what are they pitching?

While Juan Orlando Hernández could technically run for a third consecutive term in office, he has chosen not to. The move would have likely backfired by feeding into the opposition’s claims that he seeks to consolidate his power.

But the race is no less polarizing with Hernández on the sidelines. The National Party’s candidate, Nasry “Tito” Asfura, currently serves as mayor of Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s capital, and built his career within the party’s ranks. Having secured his nomination thanks to Hernández’s unofficial blessing, he promises more continuity than change. Hernández is deeply unpopular and has sought not to officially align himself with Asfura so as not to sink the National Party’s chances.

On the other side is Xiomara Castro, who leads the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), an umbrella organization of left-wing groups. While Castro has never held elected office, she was the party’s presidential candidate in 2013 and played a fundamental role in uniting the opposition in the last presidential election in 2017. She is also married to Zelaya. Castro accuses Hernández of establishing a “narco-dictatorship” and has put anti-corruption front and center in her campaign messaging.

For all their differences, Asfura and Castro share at least one thing in common: They alienate many Hondurans. Polls alternately show the two candidates being neck and neck or Castro enjoying a significant lead. But half of Hondurans surveyed had still not made up their minds by late October, speaking to widespread distrust and apathy. Since Hondurans elect presidents with a plurality of votes, the tightly fought race has massive stakes. In fact, in 2017, Hernández earned around 1.4 million total votes (42.9 percent), with a margin of victory of less than 60,000 votes over centrist sports journalist Salvador Nasralla, his closest opponent, who received 41.4 percent.

If elected, Asfura pledges to fund infrastructure projects and promote job creation. Papi a la orden (or “Daddy at your service,” as Asfura is known) proclaims in rallies that his number one priority will be creating “jobs, jobs, and more jobs.” He also promises to uphold conservative social policies, such as Honduras’s draconian abortion ban, which Castro favors ending.

But Asfura’s record as mayor of Tegucigalpa has been uninspiring. The living standards of the capital’s poor majority have barely improved since he took office in 2014, and criminal insecurity remains widespread. Honduras’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Unit Against Networks of Corruption has alleged Asfura embezzled more than $1 million in municipal coffers. The Pandora Papers leak also revealed Asfura maintains offshore accounts in Panama, a claim he denies.

Equally concerning is Asfura’s status as Hernández’s heir: The outgoing Honduran president could exert undue influence over Asfura if he wins. Hernández also faces the possibility of drug trafficking charges in the United States and would likely seek Asfura’s help to avoid extradition.

Castro is cut from a different cloth. She took up the mantle of Honduras’s leftist opposition after the 2009 coup that ushered in the current era of National Party rule. Although she is a moderate within LIBRE, a pragmatic position that allows her to appeal to Honduran voters’ centrist majority, her program still seeks to “re-found” the country following “socialist democratic” principles.

She also promises a diplomatic opening to China while the National Party vows to continue recognition of Taiwan. Honduras has long recognized Taiwan rather than mainland China and has received millions of dollars in Taiwanese foreign aid. Hernández even made a last-minute visit to Taiwan in November, where he spoke about the “friendship” between the two countries. Yet China might be willing to up the ante by granting aid to and investing in Honduras, as has been the case with neighboring El Salvador. Castro seems poised to bet on a change in course—no doubt against Washington’s wishes.

Castro has had to contend with a torrent of fake news and falsified polling data undermining her platform and alliances. But not all fears about her potential leadership are unfounded. As with Hernández and Asfura, Hondurans worry if Castro wins, Zelaya will pull the strings. Although Castro has sought to calm fears that she might follow the path of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Zelaya’s ties to Caracas and his defense of Venezuela’s 2020 sham elections raise concerns over LIBRE’s commitment to democracy.

Castro vows to call a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite Honduras’s 1982 charter on her first day in office. The assembly would likely open the gates to her party’s radical factions that claim to seek “structural change” in terms of Honduras’s highly unequal distribution of wealth and property, which could provoke conflict and instability. Asfura and the National Party have preyed on fears of such a radical turn to drum up support. Just weeks ago, thousands of National Party sympathizers took to the streets of Tegucigalpa to rally against abortion and communism.


How good are the opposition’s chances?

For the past decade, infighting split Honduras’s opposition into three factions. LIBRE grouped together left-wing forces; Nasralla led his own faction based in San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial hub; and members of the Liberal Party made up a final contingent.

Together, the three blocs have consistently captured a majority of votes in presidential elections. But their disunity long prevented them from lining up behind a single candidate, prolonging the National Party’s grip on power.

In 2017, Nasralla and LIBRE managed to unite under the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship. The alliance came close to winning. But vote tampering and court packing allowed Hernández to claim victory by a razor-thin margin.

In this year’s contest, the opposition at first seemed destined to repeat past mistakes. The field was divided among Castro, Nasralla, and Liberal candidate Yani Rosenthal, who recently returned to Honduras after serving a U.S. federal prison sentence for laundering drug money. Pollsters predicted Asfura would ride to an easy win. But in a last-ditch effort at unity, Nasralla, whose block is essential to defeating the National Party, withdrew his candidacy to endorse Castro in October. The move reenergized an apathetic contest and reinvigorated the opposition. Even though Rosenthal has refused to join the coalition, various Liberal leaders have flocked to back Castro.

Castro now has a real chance at ending a decade of National Party rule, so long as vote tampering doesn’t tip the scales toward the National Party in a replay of the last elections.


What does this election mean for Honduras’s future?

Even if Honduras’s elections go off without a hitch, stability in the short term is far from guaranteed. The country’s crisis is years in the making and will take years to resolve no matter who wins. The challenge isn’t so much rebuilding hollowed-out democratic institutions and the rule of law as it is building both from scratch.

In its yearslong process of democratic decline, Honduras’s neglected poor—the vast majority of its 10.1 million inhabitants—have suffered most. In 2010, when the National Party took over the presidency, the country’s poverty rate stood at 53.6 percent. In 2019, it had just barely inched downward to 52.3 percent. The COVID-19 pandemic and two hurricanes that struck the country weeks apart in late 2020 generated a 9 percent contraction in GDP, the single most significant drop in Honduras’s history. It’s no mystery why the country has suffered prolonged instability.

But stability will only come when Honduras’s politicians overcome the hostility that divides them and commit to building institutions that work for the country’s entire population. Unfortunately, the choice Hondurans face now—between continuity of a broken establishment under Asfura or radical uncertainty under Castro—doesn’t hold much promise.

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

Lucas Perelló is a visiting professor of international studies at Marymount Manhattan College. Twitter: @lucas_perello

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