TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – There’s more on the line than just the presidency when Hondurans go to the voting polls this weekend.
On Nov. 29, five presidential candidates are set to square off in an election that is expected to boil down to two candidates, the conservative National Party’s Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who has a commanding 16 percent lead in the polls, and center-left Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos, who severed as vicepresident under deposed President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya.
All of the candidates are running on platforms that call for improvements to education, health and safety in Honduras. But the real issue heading into this weekend’s elections is the future of Honduras’ democracy, and whether or not the elections will be able to restore any credibility or legitimacy to the country’s embattled political system.
Since the June 28 coup against Zelaya, Honduras has been entangled inCentral America’s worst political crisis in decades. Many countries in the region have said they won’t recognize the elections unless Zelaya is restored to the presidency before Sunday. Congress announced last week it will vote on the ousted president’s temporary restitution on Dec. 2 – a move Zelaya rejects as a violation of the agreement he signed earlier this month with de facto President Roberto Micheletti.
Still, many Hondurans are hoping a strong turnout at the polls will help bring constitutional order back to their country, while winning back recognition and cooperation from the international community.
A Cid-Gallup poll published last month showed that 73 percent of Hondurans hope the elections will be the solution to the five-month-old political crisis.
But as election day approaches, that now looks like tall order, according to Roberto Reyes, spokesman for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Voter turnout has declined over the last decade, with just 56 percent of the country’s 4 million eligible voters casting ballots in the 2005 elections, Reyes said.
Sunday’s voter turnout could be much less, as Zelaya’s supporters call for a national boycott of the elections.
Reyes said the presidential election has turned into a fight for the hearts and minds of Hondurans – Micheletti supporters insist the elections will prove the democratic system still works in their country, while Zelaya’s supports insist the whole thing is a sham. Ever since the coup, Reyes said, there’s been an ideological war waged in the streets.
“On the day of elections, we’ll see who wins the battle,” the electoral spokesman said.
Candidates Bowing Out
Several congressional and mayoral candidates have already pulled out of the elections, saying the conditions don’t exist for a free and fair vote.
Rodolfo Padilla, the incumbent mayor of San Pedro Sula, Honduras´ industrial capital, and three-term incumbent congresswoman Elvia Valle of the Copan region, have both pulled out of their reelection campaigns.
Valle, a member of the same divided Liberal Party that both Zelaya and interim President Micheletti belong to, said elections can only be held if Zelaya is returned to office.
“For me these elections are fraudulent because we don’t have constitutional order,” Valle told The Nica Times in an interview.
Resistance leaders have been calling on Zelaya supporters to boycott the polls, showing up at protests with “NO” painted on their hands and posters proclaiming that a vote for any candidate is a vote for the coup.
Rasel Tome, one of Zelaya’s advisors holed up with the ousted president in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, said the interim government has false hopes that the elections will resolve the political crisis and restore full democratic normalcy. “When the coup ends, when President Zelaya is returned, that’s the only way to restore democracy,” Tome said.
The Honduran military, which executed the coup last June, has called up 5,000 reservists for this weekend´s elections “to ensure no one’s right to vote is impeded by the boycotts,” according to military spokesman Ramiro Archaga.
Archaga said protesters have a right to demonstrate, but could face arrest if they try to prevent people from entering the polls.
The increased military presence has already been condemned by Andrés Pavón, director of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. Pavón said military actions need to be scrutinized and claims the army is preparing a “massacre” of members of the coup resistance.
Archaga denies that allegation and said the military is currently training officers on how to react in situations that could arise on election day. He said soldiers have been instructed to not use their weapons unless their own lives are in danger.
In another pre-election twist, Micheletti announced Nov. 19 that he would step down from the presidency between Nov. 25 and Dec. 2. Micheletti said in a prepared statement the move is to offer Hondurans a period of reflection on the impending vote. He has also suggested that the move might encourage the international community to accept the results of the election.
“Together we should show the international community that this small and dignified country deserves respect and admiration,” Micheletti said.
Zelaya and the resistance leaders say Micheletti’s temporary resignation does nothing to heal the wounds of the coup, or promote fair elections. Tome called the decision a maneuver by Micheletti to make the de facto government appear legitimate.
El Observatorio Politico, a group of young professionals formed less than a month after the coup to promote interest in this year’s elections, has found its job difficult in such a polarized country.
“Attendance at the polls is important for the message it will send to the international community, but within Honduras it also means a lot for our future,” said Miguel Alberto Alvarez, the group’s director. No one should be punished for choosing not to vote, Alvarez said; but those who boycott should respect the rights of those who will cast ballots, he insists.
Alvarez said he doesn’t have lofty hopes that the elections will resolve the political crisis, but he does think citizens should feel they have a more important role to play following the coup.
“What’s really important is what happens after the elections, if organizations like ours start to fight for a better society or not,” he said. “The only thing that can really resolve the crisis in Honduras is to create serious opportunities for achieving more social justice, more transparency in government and a true democracy.”
Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo: National Party (center right)
Elvin Santos: Liberal Party (center left)
César Ham: Democratic Unification Party (left)
Bernard Martínez: Innovation and Unity Party (center left)
Felicito Avila: Christian Democratic Party (right)