October is shaping up to be a critical month in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Honduras. On October 10 the Honduran congress is scheduled to take up final consideration of a campaign finance reform bill that is modeled on the analysis and recommendations of the MACCIH*—the OAS-based mechanism whose mission it is to assist Honduran judicial authorities combat corruption. Second, October 19 marks the first six months of the MACCIH’s official opening in Honduras, and when it is required to make a progress report to the Secretary General of the OAS and its Permanent Council. For the credibility of the MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras it is vitally important that these deadlines be taken seriously and that there be no delay in either Congressional action or MACCIH’s reporting. Let us explain:

I. Corruption and Campaign Finance

We know that democracy entails much more than elections and includes respect for basic fundamental freedoms like freedom of the press, speech, and association, as well as freedom from government repression. Nevertheless, one of the most basic components of a democratic society is the ability to freely elect and/or reject one’s leaders. The way that campaigns are run and financed is critical to running credible elections. If campaign finance rules are not transparent and strictly enforced, dirty money can corrupt the election process, skewing the results to reflect the interests of a few and not the will of the people. When those interests are criminal in nature, the cost to democracy is particularly devastating. The risk is greatest in countries with strong, well-financed criminal organizations and a weak governmental apparatus that is incapable of properly regulating campaign finance rules and holding candidates and parties accountable for violations.

“If campaign finance rules are not transparent and strictly enforced, dirty money can corrupt the election process, skewing the results to reflect the based on the interests of a few and not the will of the people.”

Irregular campaign financing is a persistent problem in Honduras that has never been addressed adequately. While there are laws and codes in place to regulate campaign spending and donations, they are limited in scope and enforcement is weak. For example, current campaign finance laws do not include spending limits or require independent auditing of political party finances. As a result, Honduras’s campaign finance system is vulnerable to manipulation by criminal organizations and the economic and political elite that are, at times, indistinguishable. See InSight Crime’s detailed report on Honduran elites and their connections to organized crime.

Following the last presidential election in 2013, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) published a report on campaign finance problems. The report attributed these to a number of factors, including the lack of political will to address campaign finance reform, the lengthy campaign period that demands the use of so many resources, an inadequate regulatory framework for campaign financing, and the failure to fully implement the regulations already in place. According to NDI, left unaddressed, these failures have weakened democracy, as the distance between elected representatives and the public has expanded and organized crime has intensified, which is able to purchase access to influence and elected officials.

MACCIH and the Honduran Context

The gravity of the corruption and campaign finance problems in Honduras is vividly seen in the scandal that enveloped the country’s social security system (IMSS) in 2013. In June of that year, the former head of the Honduran Institute of Social Security, Mario Zelaya, was alleged to have channeled money from the social security budget to support the National Party’s political campaign. Ultimately, the public’s reaction to the unearthing of this corruption scandal, among others, helped to boost support for the establishment of the MACCIH in Honduras.

Founded in April 2016, the MACCIH resulted from a negotiation between the Government of Honduras and the Organization of American States. While different from the anti-corruption commission (CICIG) in neighboring Guatemala, they also share important similarities as international bodies independent of the national government. Both mechanisms have focused some of their anti-corruption work on the importance of reforming the campaign finance system governing elections in each country. CICIG published a report on the urgent need for campaign finance reform last year, finding that the majority of Guatemalan campaign funds are illicit—either lacking proper registration and accounting or derived from illegal or anonymous sources, and illustrating that abuse of political campaign funding is not an isolated problem.

In September 2016 the MACCIH published its own report on campaign financing in the Honduran context. Central to its recommendations is the creation of an independent and non-partisan agency that would investigate campaign finance practices, conduct proper independent audits, and sanction violations of the proposed regulations. Sanctions would range from fines to disqualification of candidates and parties from running for office for the most serious offenses. The independent body would be known as the Unit on Electoral Financing, Transparency, and Auditing. MACCIH’s legislative proposal also recommends the introduction of campaign spending limits, and improved regulation and fuller accounting of campaign donations.

The Honduran National Congress

The MACCIH’s recommendations for campaign finance reform have now been adopted by the Commission of Electoral Affairs (Comisión de Asuntos Electorales) in the Honduran National Congress. The proposed legislation passed with 7 of 10 votes. It is now pending consideration before the entire Congress where it would need 86 votes to pass. Friends familiar with political opinions within the Honduran Congress tell us two things: there is likely enough votes to pass the legislation including support from all political parties except, ironically, the LIBRE party and the PAC—anti-corruption party. Insiders have suggested that a handful of Libre and PAC legislators have indicated their support for the reforms but neither party has endorsed the legislation as of yet. They also believe that the holdouts may come on board and support the legislation if they are able to negotiate other goodies and protections for their party.

While horse-trading is common in most legislatures, including in the United States, it is critically important that the campaign finance legislation be taken seriously and acted upon in a responsible manner by all parties. Additionally, to further delay passage of this legislation could jeopardize Honduras’s 2017 presidential election. The problems of irregular campaign finance and weak government oversight and regulation have been well known and well documented for many years. It would reflect negatively on Honduran political leaders if they squandered yet another opportunity to address this fundamental building block of democracy and hold the upcoming election under unacceptable conditions.

Lastly, while passing the reforms recommended by MACCIH is an important first step, the implementation of those reforms is crucial to making real changes in the Honduras’s campaign finance system. Part of this involves ensuring that institutions such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Unit for Financing, Transparency, and Auditing have sufficient authority to carry out their functions independent of the political system and political parties. It is particularly important that the Unit’s leader be a strong independent voice with no direct links to the political parties. The success of the Unit should be judged based on its leadership’s competence and ability to steer an independent course that allows for proper oversight of campaign finances and sanctions issued in a timely and meaningful way.

Likewise, the Public Ministry and the Attorney General must have sufficient independence and resolve to prosecute electoral crimes. Civil society can also play a crucial role in demanding accountability from officeholders, as witnessed in Guatemala where CICIG’s reforms have enjoyed broad support from civil society, making its investigations and recommendations harder for those in power to ignore.

II. MACCIH’s First Six-Month Report

According to MACCIH’s mandate, the head of the Mission (officially the Mission Spokesperson) must report to the Secretary General and Permanent Council of the OAS every six months. This was an important point of contention in the negotiation of MACCIH’s mandate between the OAS and the Government of Honduras. The idea that Secretary General Luis Almagro settled on was for the MACCIH to report every six months first to the Secretary General and Permanent Council, since the Mission is primarily accountable is to them.

“Delaying the MACCIH report only gives those with malicious intent or those who seek to negotiate special deals more time, and could erode trust in the MACCIH and the political will of Honduras’s elected officials.”

October 19th marks the end of MACCIH’s first six months. Some have proposed that the report be delayed to give the Honduran Congress time to take up the campaign finance legislation. It has also been proposed that the Honduran government be given first access to the report. Both these proposals are expressly contrary to the MACCIH mandate and are wholly unnecessary. To violate the spirit and letter of the mandate at this early stage would undermine the credibility and independence of the MACCIH. MACCIH needs to carefully protect its independence from the government by complying with the mandate and making its first report, and subsequent ones, in a timely manner. Delaying the report to give the Congress more time to act could backfire if the parties to not agree on a final version, and might give the impression that the MACCIH is more concerned with accommodating Honduras’s political parties than remaining focused on its mandate. The Honduran Congress has (and had) ample time to act if it has the political will to do so. It is believed that there are already 90+ votes in favor of the reform. Delaying the MACCIH report only gives those with malicious intent or those who seek to negotiate special deals more time, and could erode trust in the MACCIH and the political will of Honduras’selected officials.

III. Post-Script: Bertha Cáceres Case File

While completing this blog news broke that the case file related to the assassination of Bertha Cáceres—an indigenous and environmental activist—was stolen from the back seat of a Supreme Court Justice’s car. This is a very serious blow to the case and calls into question the professionalism of the Justice who had possession of the files. Why were they being moved? Is there a procedure in place for handling such serious and sensitive cases? The MACCIH’s spokesperson, Ambassador Juan Jimenez Mayor, issued a strong statement on Friday afternoon in which he stated, “The theft of the Bertha Cáceres case file is a criminal act that requires an energetic response by the Public Ministry and the Judiciary to identify and sanction the guilty.” Progress had been made in identifying the material authors of Ms. Caceres’s murder and the file’s theft endangers the case still being built against the masterminds behind the crime. It is another indication of the urgent need for more professionalism within Honduras’s criminal justice system, and how impunity continues to prevail in many ways and at many levels of society.

*MACCIH stands for The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.