Election Circus Undermines Honduran Democracy

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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Politicians in Honduras have been cementing the Central American country's reputation for dysfunction. Four and half years ago, the Honduran military -- with a nod from Congress and the Supreme Court -- staged a coup against leftist President Manuel Zelaya in order to halt his plans for populist constitutional reform. The repercussions of that decision have made a mess of the country's recent presidential election.

Xiomara Castro, a leftist presidential candidate who also happens to be Zelaya's wife, has so far refused to accept defeat in the Nov. 24 election, despite having apparently received about 28.8 percent of the vote, 8 percentage points fewer than the winner, Juan Hernandez of the conservative National Party.

Castro's rejection of, well, reality began the evening of the election, when she declared herself the victor before the electoral tribunal had announced the official results. Later that night, she tweeted: "With the results I've received from nationwide exit polls, I can tell you: I am the President of #Honduras."

The bizarre events continued the next day when, at a rally, Zelaya told supporters to "take to the streets if necessary" to defend his wife's victory by demanding a recount. Castro was oddly missing from the event; the deposed president's silence on his wife's absence prompted rumors that Zelaya had struck her in anger for having declared herself a winner too early. The domestic-abuse chatter apparently prompted Jose Manuel Zelaya, the couple's son, to try to defend his parents. "In my 24 years of existence never has my father raised a hand against my mother," he wrote on his Facebook account, according to AmericaEconomia. The whole affair only served to remind Hondurans that Castro's candidacy may well be Zelaya's.

Honduran newspaper La Tribuna touched on the circus in a Nov. 26 editorial: "The fight for power brings out the worst side of the people that dispute it. It was probably wishful thinking to expect that we had learned the lessons from that painful crisis that did so much damage to the country," the paper noted, referring to the 2009 coup.

Castro dug her heels in deeper at a public appearance days later. On Nov. 29 -- with official figures having already virtually confirmed Hernandez's win -- Castro denounced widespread "irregularities" during the vote and went as far as to say "fraud was committed." She described the election as a "disgusting monstrosity that has robbed me of the presidency," and said her Liberty and Refoundation Party wouldn't accept "the results released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and we will not recognize the legitimacy of the government that is the product of this shameful assault." Students who supported Castro expressed their outrage in protests.

On Saturday, the tribunal officially declared Hernandez the winner. Castro and Zelaya led a march against the results the following day that featured the coffin of a pro-Zelaya activist who was killed on Saturday, possibly by individuals intent on stealing his gun. That didn't stop Castro from blaming the government for the death to advance her agenda against the electoral results and the policies of those currently in power. The El Heraldo newspaper quoted Castro as calling on President Porfirio Lobo to control security forces, saying: "The practices that led to the (2009) coup are starting again. Stop the killings and that repressive apparatus."

Observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States have vouched for the election's transparency, in spite of some imperfections. A group of Honduran computer programmers who, with the help of crowdsourcing, took on the job of verifying the results have largely confirmed Hernandez's victory. But Castro's call on Monday for the tribunal to carry out a recount suggests she's still in denial. The tribunal has agreed to review the tallies, likely in an effort to prevent any further protests or political antics.

Back in 2009, Zelaya's actions exposed the dark side of Honduran populism, but removing him only enraged a segment of the population -- mostly lower-income Hondurans -- and lent credence in the eyes of some to his plan to change the constitution to do away with presidential term limits. Allowing a coup suggests many Hondurans still don't fully trust their democracy. So it is no surprise that politicians such as Zelaya and Castro continue to command attention.

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