Breaking a Vicious Circle: The 2013 Honduran Election

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Breaking a Vicious Circle: The 2013 Honduran Election - Meaghan Doherty

In addition to being one of the largest exporters of bananas and coffee in the Western hemisphere, the small, Central American nation of Honduras tops the lists in another category: violence. With the highest murder rate in the world – 85 per 100,000 people – coupled with a history of institutional corruption, a powerful business elite, and an aggressive military, Honduras is currently cited as being the most dangerous state in the world. On Sunday, 24 November, more than 55% of Honduras’ 8.5 million residents went to the polls to elect a new president and attempt to break free from the violence and civil unrest of years past. Yet, with election results being contested by the leftist LIBRO party and throngs of Hondurans taking to the streets in protest, it is clear that many obstacles remain before Honduras can overcome its turbulent history and reinstall peace and stability.

Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America and suffers from high unemployment, surging violence, and an extraordinarily unequal distribution of wealth. The economy, which has experienced stagnant growth since the 2009 coup of then-President Manuel Zelaya, is agrarian-based and largely dependent upon remittances from the United States. As South American cocaine continues to pass through Honduras en route to the United States, drug-related crime has exploded. Poor Hondurans tend to blame the wealthy business class, which benefits from weaknesses in the rule of law and its close ties with the military and its police force. Hondurans as well as international observers cite corruption as the most serious internal malady that prevents the country from escaping its vicious circle. 

The disputed presidential election – in which both leading candidates declared victory before half of the votes were counted – comes as hardly a surprise to those familiar with Honduras’ downward spiral since the 2009 coup launched by the Supreme Court and the Honduran military. Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the LIBRO party and wife of deposed President Zelaya, immediately accused the opposition of committing electoral fraud and called for mass protests. Juan Orlando Hernandez, presidential candidate of the National Party of Honduras, is suspected of buying votes and engaging in other fraudulent measures in an attempt to seize power. Hernandez is feared by members of the opposition who believe that his proposed military solution to curb drug-related crime will lead to human rights abuses and further corruption of security forces. Dwindling trust in security forces has also contributed to the escalation of violence in recent years.

Hope for Honduras lies in symptoms of increased pluralism within political institutions. The presidential ballot included eight candidates from a host of different parties, including an anti-corruption party that won approximately one-sixth of the vote. High voter turnout kept the election a close race, and international observers charged with monitoring the voting process reported no outward signs of fraud. In fact, this year’s Congress will likely be the most diverse in its 31-year history of civilian rule.

But does a modest pivot towards democratic reform indicate a veritable departure from the past? Recent trends towards greater institutional pluralism indicate progress for Honduras in escaping its vicious circle of corruption, violence, and low economic prospects, but significant hurdles remain before stability can be achieved. In addition to political transparency to curb corruption and a cross-party strategy to quell violence and foster cooperation among a diverse group of lawmakers, systemic checks on the power of elites are required to shift the course for Honduras and break the cycle of violence that has plagued the state for much of its post-colonial history. If this year’s election yields any forecast, it is to hope for the best but prepare for more of the same.