Latin America Advisor

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Will Honduras’ Presidential Vote Be Free and Fair?

A photo of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández talking into a microphone while wearing a surgical face mask. Several candidates are vying to succeed Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has said he will not seek another term. // File Photo: Facebook page of Juan Orlando Hernández.

Honduras’ political parties on March 14 are set to elect their candidates ahead of the country’s presidential election this November. Incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández has said he will not seek a third term. Who are the main presidential hopefuls to watch this year in Honduras? How will Hernández, and the U.S. allegations that he accepted bribes from drug traffickers, which the Honduran presidency denies, influence the race? After Honduras’ 2017 presidential election was marred by allegations of fraud, how likely is this year’s election to be free and fair? How will the vote influence Honduras’ relations with other countries, and its foreign aid, including from the United States?

Luis Suazo, Honduras’ ambassador to the United States: "The accusations against President Hernández are based on testimonies of confessed drug traffickers severely hit by the president’s policies and actions against drug trafficking. The U.S. State Department confirmed that in 2013, 87 percent of the drugs that transited to the north passed through Honduras, and in its 2020 report, this number dropped to 4 percent—an unparalleled reduction of 83 percent; no country in the world has had that kind of achievement. If narcos get rewarded with reduced sentences when they give false testimony, it would lead to a collapse of the collaboration against narcotics. These accusations contradict the results of the Honduran government in the fight against drugs and collide with strong facts. We also should not ignore factors such as the credibility and ethics of several of the Southern District of New York prosecutors, whom a federal judge has questioned The judge has also asked for an investigation. This makes us wonder about the integrity of their actions. Of course, these accusations will influence the elections in some way; it is precisely what some articulated political actors inside and outside of Honduras want. President Hernández has supported the election process by making available every resource, so the institutions that manage the elections can do their job. The National Electoral Council (CNE) is legally in charge of the country’s electoral system. Opposition parties have control of this institution. CNE, not the executive branch, dictates the guidelines with respect to the country’s electoral processes. Some political forces have backgrounds of ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse, opposition to the fight against drugs and extradition, the cleanup of Honduran police forces, its new high-security prison system and other critical efforts that are at the center of recuperating peace. In foreign policy, they oppose what President Hernández has supported, for example, moving our embassy to Jerusalem, support for Taiwan and President Guaidó, and halting the expansion in the region of some U.S. political adversaries. Honduran interests are not the only ones at stake."

Enrique Rodríguez Burchard, former member of Honduras’ Congress and former general secretary of the Liberal Party: “Salvador Nasralla will seek the presidency for the third time; Xiomara Castro will once again seek power with the party founded by her husband, Manuel Zelaya; Luis Zelaya is running for the second time in a row, hoping to unite his Liberal Party first and then become the standard-bearer for the opposition. The new players are the mayor of Tegucigalpa, Nasry Asfura, who despite his popularity has all the wear and tear of the ruling party; and Yani Rosenthal, who, after serving a prison term in the United States, represents real competition for Luis Zelaya. The elephant in the room is President Hernández, who is plagued by accusations of corruption and drug trafficking. It is believed that the U.S. justice doesn’t prosecute acting presidents, and therein lies Hernández’s great temptation to seek another unconstitutional term. Accustomed to controlling all parts of the state, he is also tempted to place his pawns in new positions of power, mainly in the future National Congress, which will elect a new Supreme Court and a new attorney general. Congress did not approve the electoral reforms, and the same broken rules could lead to the same problems. The international community, after each tainted election, has called for these needed reforms, but its demands are weak, and it ends up abandoning the effort so as ‘not to destabilize the country.’ This tactic has been disastrous because it has given wings to the corrupt to continue manipulating Honduras’ fragile democracy. The country needs to focus on improving the conditions of its inhabitants and on strengthening its presence in the concert of nations. This can only be done by a democratically elected president in a credible process.”

Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group: “Hondurans go to the polls on March 14 for primaries without the electoral reforms sought since the controversial 2017 presidential elections. Throughout last year, Honduras’ Congress debated the Electoral Law, which was shelved in December. Arguing over temporary provisions on how to run the primaries continued into February, with the interim head of the National Electoral Council claiming the National Party would not agree to reforms sought by other parties on measures such as improving vote auditing and securing credentials for electoral workers to avoid trafficking of IDs. The Clean Politics Unit established under advice of now-shuttered anti-corruption mechanism MACCIH lacks sufficient budget and authorities to fully investigate candidates’ campaign funds to prevent corruption and organized crime campaign contributions. If substantial electoral reforms are not passed by the November 2021 general elections, Honduras risks another crisis of protest and violent repression such as those that followed the 2017 elections. Apart from the troubled state of electoral mechanics, many of the candidates are hardly inspiring. Some 30 percent of candidates reportedly do not even have an account number showing they pay taxes. Several presidential candidates have ties to corruption, including Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry ‘Tito’ Asfura of the National Party, who was named in a case involving alleged embezzlement of city funds. Congressional President and National Party presidential candidate Mauricio Oliva presided over laws that made punishing corruption more difficult. One Liberal Party candidate, Yani Rosenthal, even served three years in a U.S. jail, convicted of money laundering."

Tiziano Breda, analyst for Central America at the International Crisis Group: “Honduras is approaching an unpredictable presidential election. President Hernández has rejected the corruption allegations, saying drug traffickers are trying to ‘fool’ U.S. authorities. He threatens to sever bilateral cooperation with the United States if the charges stand, raising concerns that despite his promises he might not go quietly when his second term ends in January 2022; Hernández was only able to run for re-election in 2017 because of a Supreme Court decision that his opponents viewed as partisan (Honduras has a one-term limit for presidents). Even if he does leave office, Hernández could retain significant influence over his successor, particularly if that person is Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, whom he reportedly prefers over the ruling party’s main contender, Mauricio Oliva, the head of Congress. In any case, contrasting attitudes toward the president may divide the ruling National Party. The March 14 primaries will likely crystallize divisions within all the main parties, including the Liberals, but also the left-wing Libre, where grassroots discontent over a failure to change leadership is mounting. Reforms to shore up the integrity of elections are incomplete. Hoping to avoid a repeat of the unrest of 2017, the main parties created new electoral bodies in early 2019 and staffed them with a mix of their nominees, as a check on bias in the vote count. But the failure of Congress to approve a new electoral law, including regulations governing these bodies, and irregularities and delays in the new, digitized voter registry, risk undermining any gains in credibility. The risks associated with the vote, including the potential for disputes turning violent, make it vital that the United States adjust its policy toward the country, anchored in cooperation on security and migration. Stronger political engagement, starting with the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Honduras, a post long left vacant, is essential, as is greater focus on completing electoral reforms and enhancing anti-corruption efforts. Lack of accountability and transparency have contributed to the country’s chronic instability and look set to endure even after Hernández departs.”

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