On Sunday, November 24th, Hondurans went to the polls to elect a new President, Congress, and municipal authorities that will run their country for the next 4 years. While the results have not been finalized, it would appear that Election Day transpired with focalized problems but no systematic fraud. It also looks like somewhere around 60% of registered Hondurans participated in the first election involving all political parties since a 2009 coup that ousted then-President “Mel” Zelaya.
Yet, despite this relatively good news there is concern that both leading candidates declared themselves winners well before results were official and even before 50% of the votes were tabulated by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Furthermore, the party of ousted President Zelaya, whose candidate was his wife, Xiomara Castro, has claimed there was fraud and declared they would not recognize the results or negotiate with candidate ahead in the official count, Juan Orlando Hernandez.
These developments were not unexpected and reflect both the ongoing polarization in post-coup Honduras and the limited confidence political parties have in the machinery governing elections in Honduras. As a result, rather than a healing process the election could deepen the country’s polarization. After all, it looks like whoever is declared the winner will end up with roughly a third of total votes and control around a third of Honduras’s unicameral legislature.
The concern in the coming days is that polarization, distrust and a fractured political landscape will contribute to more unrest and even violence in the country. Honduras already has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and over two-thirds of its population lives in poverty. So what can Honduras do to overcome its divisions and begin the healing process so desperately needed?
Here are three suggestions:
1. The eventual winner should extend an olive branch to the other parties and seek a political consensus around the key reforms Honduras needs. With eight presidential candidates, and four receiving double-digit support, it would appear that Honduras’s political landscape is permanently altered. Gone is the familiar two-party system in which the National and Liberal parties simply exchange control of the country. It is unlikely whoever is declared the final winner will have a mandate to rule, and will almost certainly face a divided congress. Honduran politicians will have to make an important choice whether they treat the outcome as a winner-take-all, the spoils-to-the-victor situation; or, whether they seek to find common ground around an agenda for reform that all Hondurans agree with. Can there be a national political framework that helps move the country forward, or will each party try to block any measure – no matter how necessary – that seeks to bring about needed change in Honduras? It’s time for the victor and the vanquished to work together not at cross purposes.
2. Even though there were only limited reports of fraud and violence, the country’s electoral system is in desperate need of reform. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE in Spanish) is rooted in the old two- party system and run by political appointees. It is not a citizen-run non-partisan organization and suffers from a perception of favoritism for the traditional parties. Furthermore, there are no legal requirements for independent audits of campaign expenditures and the TSE says its hands are tied by the law. Even the limited campaign finance reporting that are required were ignored by the parties and the TSE is not able to hold them accountable. Reforms that increase the public’s confidence in the electoral institutions are urgently needed and should be a priority for all parties before the next election.
3. Finally, there needs to be broad consensus around the country’s security strategy. There are major differences on this issue and failure to gain consensus further weakens the government’s capacity to deal with crime and violence. One key area of dispute is the role of the military in public security. It is certainly credible to argue that the Honduran police and justice system have failed to deal with the threats posed by organized crime and violence. Sadly, in many cases the police and prosecutors have been part of the problem. In similar circumstances it has been argued that the military should be a viable short-term alternative. Unfortunately, the military has given up its claim of neutrality and non-partisanship not only by participating in the 2009 coup but appearing in campaign advertisements with the National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez. Engaging in such overtly partisan activity diminishes the sense of trust among Hondurans who voted against Hernandez’s National Party and feel targeted by a partisan institution rather than protected.
Honduras and the Honduran people face long odds in dealing with the critical problems of poverty, growing economic inequality, elevated violence, and public insecurity. It will be nearly impossible for them to deal with these without first dealing with the deep political divide and polarization that now seems to characterize the post-election period. Electoral reforms, establishing a broad political consensus for reform, and de-politicizing the role of the military may be the best way to overcome some of these divides.