Hernandez open up «irreversible» lead in hotly contested Honduras election
MEXICO CITY – Juan Orlando Hernandez of the establishment National Party proclaimed himself «president-elect» of Honduras after electoral officials called his lead in Sunday’s presidential elections «Irreversible.»
If upheld, it would beat back a challenge from Xiomara Castro, wife of ex-President Manuel Zeyala, who was ousted from office and escorted out of the country in a 2009 coup.
Castro refuses to concede the contest, calling herself the victor and alleging incidents of fraud â?? setting the scene for a potential political crisis.
With two-thirds of the votes counted, Hernandez claimed 34% support in an eight-party race, compared with 29% for Castro and her Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre).
His potential victory, with barely one-third support, shows a splintering of the Honduran political scene, where the National and Liberal Parties traded power for decades in what was a stable, two-party system.
That system unravelled during the 2006 – 2009 administration of Zelaya, who lurched left and spooked the country’s political and businesses classes with his close ties to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
It also underscored the weak hand Hernandez has to play with as he attempts to turn around a country with the worst murder rate in the world, poverty afflicting more than 70% of the population and deep foreign debts.
«Turning around the country will be a long term issue,» says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
«The new president will need support of congress, business, and the international community. An attack on cartels, corruption and crony capitalism would be a great place to begin.»
Hernandez campaigned on creating a new military police in Honduras, where, after the post-coup political crisis, the murder rate mushroomed, businesses and ordinary people began paying extortion to gangs and cartels exploited the Central American country as a transit point for moving drugs between South America and the United States.
Some observers express skepticism with candidate’s promises, however, saying the security situation deteriorated under National Party rule of outgoing President Porfirio Lobo. (Honduras doesn’t permit not presidential re-election.)
«It was managed from the outset of the Lobo administration as a government that knew its main purpose should be pursuing a second term in office,» says Ileana Morales, researcher with the Tegucigalpa-based Honduras Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development (Fosdeh.)
Hernandez prioritized accumulating power while serving as the president of Congress over the past four years and put political projects ahead of pressing social and security problems, she says.
«It wasn’t a government that ruled from the presidency,» according to Morales.
Honduras plunged into a political crisis after Zelaya was ousted in June 2009 for calling a referendum on re-writing the constitution a vote the Supreme Court ruled illegal and opponents allege was an attempt at perpetuating his power.
Zelaya rejected those allegations, although Castro’s candidacy and new party has been interpreted as an attempt at perpetuating his political project. Some observers say Libre has staying power, especially with poverty so pervasive and discontent with the democracy of past decades remaining rife.
«It wasn’t so much a protest vote as a search for some sort of alternative,» Father German Calix, Honduras director of Catholic charitable organization Caritas, says of the support for Libre.
«It was a way of saying, ‘We’re tired of the poverty and misery in which we’ve been living.'»
Lobo’s election in 2009 was supposed to solve the political crisis created after Zelaya’s ouster. But the situation only worsened as gangs grew in power, extorting everyday people and attacking those who wouldn’t pay up. Impunity was the norm, along with suspicions of corruption.
The homicide rate hit 85.5 per 100,000 residents in 2012, according to the National Autonomous University of Honduras, while the industrial city of San Pedro Sula became the murder capital of the world.
Weak institutions and corruption only invited an influx of drug traffickers. An estimated 87% of cocaine smuggling flights arriving in the United States first stopped in Honduras, according to the State Department.
The violence has only prompted more people to abandon the country and pursue perilous journeys through Central American and Mexico where criminal gangs and crooked public official commit crimes such as kidnap and extortion against migrants in an attempt to reach the United States.
«Before, it was economic reasons» for leaving, says Juan Sheenan, country director of Catholic Relief Services. «Now, it’s violence.»
Economic opportunities are often lacking in Honduras, the second-poorest country in the hemisphere.
Morales says a number of questionable concessions have been granted by the government in recent years and tax privileges for businesses are common highlighted by fast-food franchises not paying tax due to arguments that these restaurants boost tourism.
«This is a country that has been looted,» she says.
«We’ve mortgaged our public resources for benefit of relatively few people.»