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Dec 8, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

In Honduras, an Election's End Brings More Uncertainty

Supporters of Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla set up a barricade blocking access too the country's capital.
(ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights

  • Honduran electoral authorities have declared that incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez has secured a narrow lead in presidential election results but have not named him the winner. This could lead to weeks, if not months, of unrest.
  • Honduran politics will remain fundamentally unstable long after the current crisis subsides.
  • If the opposition coalition tries to use protests to pressure the government into making political concessions, unrest risks becoming more frequent and more violent. 

Contested election results threaten to cause weeks, if not months, of protests and politically motivated violence in Honduras. Preliminary results from the Nov. 26 Honduran presidential election appeared to show opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla besting incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party. But, as votes were tallied, supporters of Nasralla and the coalition between his Anti-Corruption Party and the leftist Liberty and Refoundation Party were dismayed to see Hernandez pull ahead. On Nov. 28, rioters from Nasralla's coalition took to the streets. Widespread vandalism and looting occurred throughout the week, particularly in San Pedro Sula. After a final count released Dec. 4 showed Hernandez as the victor, further riots and violence became almost guaranteed.

Protesters have blocked roads across the country, including key transit arteries, almost every day. Businesses have been looted in broad daylight, and the government has resorted to an overnight curfew to limit the unrest. Assets owned by U.S. entities have not been specifically targeted, but business belonging to wealthy local residents have been attacked and vandalized. Periodic looting and protests will likely continue for weeks and will only be slowed by the end-of-year holidays, though demonstrations will likely pick up again in January. In the meantime, the election dispute remains unresolved. Although election authorities have declared that Hernandez leads in the vote counting, the government has made no official announcement declaring a winner, and a recount, or even a new election, is possible.

What Goes Around ...

Honduran politics have historically been unstable, and violent overthrows of the sitting government were common for most of the 20th century. After the 1982 constitution was drafted, however, transitions of power became peaceful and timely. Still, the country's extreme poverty and high levels of government corruption created a mass of dissatisfied voters ready to throw their support behind a populist leader. In many respects, the current postelection violence in Honduras now is a sequel to the 2009 coup against populist President Manuel Zelaya. Early that year, Zelaya had tried to hold an unofficial vote to amend the country's constitution to permit him to run for a second term. Opposition parties, including the currently ruling Nationalists, deemed the attempt illegal. Zelaya was overthrown on June 28, 2009, and he went into exile. 

Although Zelaya returned to the country in 2011, the coup destabilized Honduran politics. Many members of Zelaya's Liberal Party left it to form their own. Whereas voters previously had only two major political parties to choose from, this third party could now attract votes that previously would have gone to the Liberals. In 2015, Zelaya's supporters were dealt another major blow when the Supreme Court ruled that Hernandez could run for a second term in office.

Postelection Violence and Unrest in Honduras

The nomination of Salvador Nasralla, a well-known sports commentator, in 2017 boosted the fortunes of the pro-Zelaya coalition. Voters were angered by the decision to amend the constitution and allow Hernandez run for re-election. After all, Zelaya's attempt to do so had formed the grounds for his ouster. But they had now gained a champion. With the backing of populist Zelaya, the largely apolitical Nasralla was able to closely challenge Hernandez for the presidency. Now, faced with the possibility of a second term under Hernandez, Zelaya's supporters are enraged by what they view as an unfair system rigged against leftist leaders.

...Comes Around

The 2017 presidential election in Honduras is yet another chapter in the political rivalry created by the country's 2009 coup. But even after the current crisis subsides, Honduras will remain fundamentally unstable. The election made it clear that that a leftist coalition is capable of wielding a plurality of the vote and closely contesting power, a situation that could embolden opposition leaders to take potentially risky action.

Whether unrest becomes more frequent and more violent largely depends on whether the opposition coalition intends to use the street protests to pressure the ruling party into making political concessions, such as granting a vote recount or a new election or allowing it to make Cabinet appointments in any Hernandez administration. The members of the ruling party will not agree readily to concessions and, even if they are eventually pressured to accept them, there is no guarantee that the protesters will capitulate. However, the domestic politics of Honduras are unlikely to affect the country's allies or major powers in the region, including the United States.

Honduran officials of all political stripes benefit from the profits of cocaine trafficking, and that trend will not be altered by a temporary political confrontation.

As long as Honduran political elites resolve the political standoff among themselves, the United States will remain largely absent from the crisis. After all, the U.S. government mostly focuses on Honduras for its role as an ally in the fight against drug trafficking and as a source of illegal migration to the United States. The current crisis, however, is unlikely to become a major cause of migration. Poverty, endemic crime and even drought will remain the principal drivers of illegal migration for Central Americans crossing the U.S. border. The current crisis, for however long it lasts, is also unlikely to affect security cooperation between the United States and Honduras.

The foothold that drug traffickers have in Honduras will also remain unaffected. Honduras is, after all, a key transit route for Colombian cocaine headed to the United States. Honduran officials of all political stripes benefit from the profits of cocaine trafficking, and that trend will not be altered by a temporary political confrontation. This crisis will likely end up as just another chapter in the country's history of conflict-filled politics. 

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