Democracy and justice are very much at stake Nov. 24 when Hondurans choose a new president for a four-year term. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, presidential candidate of the new LIBRE party, has led in opinion polls for nine months. LIBRE is a self-described social democratic party that is agitating for a new constitution and is kin to progressive political movements active throughout Latin America. Some polling results a week ahead of the voting, however, were giving the edge to Castro's main rival, National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández.
Four years ago incumbent President Porfirio Lobo ran as candidate of the same party, winning in elections marked by strikingly low voter turnout. Lobo's government opened the door to extraction of natural resources by transnational corporations and approved "economic development zones" where governance would be handed over to corporations. During his tenure public debt, drug trafficking, and police corruption have mounted. U.S. military bases expanded. Overwhelming violence has extended to 300 political murders, most of them uninvestigated. Victims include 100 agrarian rights activists and 29 journalists. Honduras' poverty rate is 70 percent.
Lobo succeeded Roberto Micheletti, assigned to Honduras' presidency following the U.S.-approved military coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009. Zaleya is Xiomara Castro's husband. As president, he enraged Honduras' rich and powerful by aligning Honduras with solidarity alliances inspired by Venezuela and Cuba, reinstituting mild land reform, advocating for a minimum wage, and initiating plans for a new constitution.
The LIBRE Party - the Party of Liberty and Refoundation - is the electioneering arm of the National Front for Popular Resistance. That group emerged as the organizer for nationwide protests immediately following the coup. Campaigning, candidate Castro has condemned "savage capitalism that is against to what peoples need - justice, peace, and fairness." "We are going to reconstruct a different Honduras for everybody, with reconciliation," she said. Castro frequently refers to a constituent assembly and promises food sovereignty, anti-poverty measures, and health care and education reforms. She speaks of defending national sovereignty and steering clear of northern power brokers.
As a congressional leader, National Party candidate Hernández, a supporter of the 2009 military coup, illegally engineered the removal and replacement of four Supreme Court justices and appointment of a right-wing attorney general. Acknowledging police ties with organized crime and drug trafficking, Hernández has centered his campaign on militarization of police work. He wants "a soldier on every corner." Honduras' military is implicated in violent political repression and corruption.
According to U.S. Honduras watcher Dana Frank, writing in the Nation, "prospects for a free and fair contest are grim." She notes that "at least eighteen LIBRE activists and candidates have been killed since May 2012." With the approach of the elections, the government criminalized political protests. Irregularities are cropping up in election arrangements. Prensa Latina noted recently that the names of 15 dead people showed up on voting rolls. And photos of the same individual appearing on identification cards and on election registry documents occasionally don't match.
Electioneering stopped on Nov. 18, a week ahead of voting, to allow time for the 5.3 million Hondurans registered to vote to reflect and decide. Apart from the two leading presidential candidates, there are six others competing on behalf of seven political parties. Hondurans will also be voting for a vice president, 128 deputies to the national Congress and 20 deputies to the Central American Parliament. They will choose mayors and municipal councilors for 298 municipalities.
The upcoming elections have long-term significance, says Dana Frank, not least because they "will test whether Latin America's transition to democracy and social justice will be permitted to advance - in what Secretary of State John Kerry still refers to as 'our backyard.'"
Photo: An election rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya Facebook page.