Honduras voted for change. Can Xiomara Castro, the president-elect, deliver?

Xiomara Castro speaks to her supporters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 28 after the presidential vote. (Moises Castillo/AP)
Xiomara Castro speaks to her supporters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Nov. 28 after the presidential vote. (Moises Castillo/AP)

Xiomara Castro — the leader of Honduras’s leftist opposition — claimed a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election. With 52.42 percent of votes counted, Castro held a 20-point lead over her nearest competitor, conservative Nasry Asfura of the incumbent National Party.

She delivered a victory speech Sunday night once her double-digit lead became clear. Honduras’s leading business association, COHEP, congratulated Castro, as did the contest’s third major candidate, Yani Rosenthal. Asfura had also claimed victory but conceded late Tuesday and congratulated Castro on her victory.

Castro is poised to make history as the country’s first female president and end 12 years of undemocratic National Party rule, which has sent, by our calculations, close to 1 in 9 Hondurans fleeing toward the United States in the past decade. But whether she can indeed deliver on her promises to uproot criminal networks and rebuild democracy is another question.

Here’s what you need to know.

A referendum on the ruling party

Despite hours-long lines and sporadic blackouts at polling centers, the Organization of American States called the vote “adequate and peaceful.” That was not a given. The National Party engineered “irregularities and deficiencies” in the 2017 elections to claim victory — a contest in which the opposition also claimed an early lead. Honduran security forces cracked down on protesters afterward, resulting in at least 31 deaths.

This time, National Party lawmakers spread misinformation and doled out cash to buy votes. Pre-election violence resulted in more than 20 assassinated politicians, most from the ranks of the opposition, fomenting fear among those who openly support opposition candidates.

Castro succeeded by turning the vote into a referendum on the National Party’s decade-plus in power, including its inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic and repeated corruption scandals. After a 2009 coup that ended up putting the party in power, Presidents Porfirio Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández expanded the party’s criminal enterprise. In addition to electoral fraud and rewriting the constitution to permit reelection, National Party elites showered government contracts and protection on the country’s top drug-trafficking clans in exchange for kickbacks and political support.

What’s more, in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, government officials directed some $200 million in embezzled social security funds to National Party campaigns and set up shell nonprofits to buy political patronage and bribe judges. When an internationally supported anti-corruption commission known as the MACCIH closed in on the people responsible for these crimes, Hernández shuttered the institution.

Castro also moved toward the center, reassuring the country’s private sector and swing voters that she intended to govern on behalf of all Hondurans, not just those who support her party’s democratic socialist platform. That meant distancing herself from her party’s radicals and even her own husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in the 2009 coup.

But 68 percent of Hondurans showed up to vote, far more than in recent elections and enough to overcome the National Party’s political machine. It also helped that the opposition largely united behind Castro, no small feat in a region where democratic opposition parties are prone to infighting.

So what comes next? “We have turned back authoritarianism,” Castro told cheering supporters, adding, “We’re going to form a government of reconciliation, a government of peace and justice.”

For the National Party, however, reconciliation sounds like a reckoning.

Can Castro bring corrupt officials to justice?

Governing will be a challenge, given the need to balance the “national unity” she promised and the reforms a majority of the population demands. She could investigate and prosecute Hernández, drawing on plentiful evidence — including allegations by U.S. prosecutors — of his links to violent drug cartels.

Whether she prosecutes Hernández or not, the National Party’s criminality reaches wide and deep, and could destabilize Castro. U.S. prosecutors have also linked Castro’s husband to drug traffickers, suggesting that she may not let investigators probe too deeply. Instead of delivering justice for those who stole from the Honduran people, she could face pressures to pardon elites from across the political spectrum for their crimes.

Likewise, the armed forces have been arbiters of power in the past. The military has a history of antagonism toward the left and its perceived loyalty to the National Party after Hernández expanded the institution. The military’s high command could play an uncooperative or even obstructionist role, depending in part on how radical her governing agenda proves to be.

Barriers to democratic reforms

Castro has pledged to call a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution, with the goal of delivering “structural change.” But the country’s high courts favor the National Party, and how exactly Castro envisions changing institutions remains unclear.

Designing effective anti-graft reforms amid entrenched corruption will not be easy. If Castro calls a constitutional assembly and fills it with supporters, as did Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa in an earlier era, the rewrite could concentrate power in her own hands instead of rebuilding democracy. Castro already thanked Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro for congratulating her on her win, and her husband praised Venezuela’s 2020 sham elections.

Even if Castro helps revive Honduran democracy, the crisis that has forced so many Hondurans from their homes will not resolve overnight. The new president will struggle with issues like gutted public services and scarce employment, which drove an unprecedented proportion of Hondurans to the polls.

Hondurans turned out in large numbers because the ruling party’s governments persistently failed them. They are hoping that the new boss is not the same as the old one, and that Castro delivers more than cosmetic change. It will be an uphill battle.

Will Freeman (@WillGFreeman) is a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University. Paul J. Angelo (@pol_ange) is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and previously served as a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

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