The 2013 Honduran general elections (scheduled for November 10 2013) will set precedents in several ways. It will be the first time that a new centre-left party, Libertad y Refundación (Libre), will challenge the rule of the two traditional rightwing parties that have dominated Honduran politics since the 1920s. Taking its lead from other Latin American countries, it will also be the first time a former first lady runs for the government top spot. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya is the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and is the consensus candidate for the new grouping. This will be one of the most closely watched elections internationally and regionally, given that the coup which unseated Zelaya in 2009 set in motion a political crisis that has been debilitating the Lobo government’s hold on the country. Whoever wins will inherit a state riddled (literally) with bullets. It will confront on the one hand continued popular protest, and on the other a tug of war between new and traditional commercial interests. This inheritance will be marked by a deficit in institutional legitimacy to rival its fiscal deficit. It will be the product of Honduras’ complex electorate, half of whom deny that a coup even took place. Here are a few things to watch in the coming year.
Security, security, security
As in many of the violence-ridden countries of Central America, security will be the number one concern in the upcoming election and a tough record for the current government to defend. If Honduras is famous for one thing internationally, it is its murder rate of 82.1 murders per 100,000 residents. Security will be the most important policy option for all three parties. Scarcely less important on the agenda are the high levels of impunity, which according to national Human Rights organizations range between 80 and 98 per cent. Narco-trafficking is increasingly behind most violent crime, and its perpetrators are often above the law.
Honduras’ own fiscal cliff
Fiscally speaking, the Honduran state is on its knees. Witholding the pay of public sector, education and health workers since November 2012, and failing to send decentralized funds to municipal mayors, has had a high political cost. This failure to pay the bills is indicative of a much deeper problem of planning, prioritization and fiscal management that is unforgivable in a broader international panorama of double or triple-dip recession. This is already causing the government headaches: the public sectors worst hit also happened to be those which employ the largest proportion of workers. Strikes as a result of the government’s defaulting on salaries have become commonplace in the capital.
The current proposed budget for 2013 now before Congress has been described by local analysts as inflated and unsustainable, adding some US$ 893 million to that of 2012. Expenditure far outstrips revenue, and even the most inventive economist would be hard-pressed to come up with sustainable innovations to meet this gap. So far the government’s mitigating measure has been to increase internal and external debt – indebting itself more to pay previous debts. Even the IMF suggested in September that there should be “a reduction of current expenditures through the elimination of generous tax exemptions”.
Institutional crisis and its impact
The wrangle between the Supreme Court and congress is the latest chapter of an ongoing political feud between the institutional powers in Honduras. On 12 December Congress, by 97 to 28 votes, sacked four out of five constitutional court judges on the basis that they had acted unconstitutionally by rejecting two executive-sponsored investment and security-related initiatives: Model Cities and Purification of the Police. Congress technically does not have the mandate to remove constitutional court judges, even though they may have had cause to do so even before the rejection of these two initiatives. Timing is therefore a crucial part of this puzzle. It is no secret that this court was not aligned with the executive or its heir, the head of congress and winner of the primaries for the governing Partido Nacionalista, Juan Orlando Hernández. This same court had been responsible for the rejection of seven executive-proposed pieces of legislation because of their unconstitutionality and looked likely to back Hernández’s rival’s request for a primaries re-count on the basis of fraud.
Whether it was Congress or the Constitutional Court Judges who acted more unconstitutionally is a moot point. What this shows above all is that the fragile system of separation of powers is near collapse. Political expedience determines when and what is constitutional, and when and what the sanctions might be. For an electorate tired of power plays and political muscle flexing, this further reduces the legitimacy of institutions, publicly belittles their work, undermines their value and reduces them to instruments for use by the power hungry and the commercially dominant.
Apathy towards the existing institutional structures runs high and social conflict is on the rise. According to LAPOP’s 2012 Honduras report, Honduras has the lowest support for democracy of any Latin American country. At the same time, the number of social conflicts has been on the increase since 2009. Impunity, a poor record on mediation and a lack of voice in political and institutional decision-making is a breeding ground for conflict – and this affects not only political and social stability but reduces a country’s attractiveness to longer-term investment. Currently, the Honduran government registers 95 active social conflicts. The national government human rights agency reports that 27 of these relate to social issues; 22 socio-political issues; 14 are education-related; 11 health-related; six are environmental conflicts and nine are related to citizen security. These conflicts have flared up in 15 out of the 18 departments in the country.
The agrarian conflict in the Bajo Aguán is one of the longest-running of these struggles. According to campesino groups, since 2009 the Aguan conflict has claimed over 80 campesino lives; the total death toll since the coup is over 100. In Honduras, fresh deaths of campesinos and security force personnel are reported on a weekly basis and have almost become non-news.
The Bajo Aguán is often used as an emblematic case of a near-intractable land conflict and what happens when there is a promotion of investment without due respect for human rights. Even the International Financial Corporation, the investment arm of the World Bank, is under internal audit to investigate whether proper due diligence took place ahead of its investment in one of the companies allegedly involved in abuses in the Aguán. Human rights abuses, murder and intimidation have not been reduced despite the zone’s militarization. More recently, although according to official reports agreements have been reached and the land conflict resolved, people linked to the campesino movement continue to be killed. The most recent killings took place in January 2013. Luis Antonio Ramos Reyes (24) and Manuel Antonio Pérez (27) were executed and their bodies left by the roadside. Both men belonged to Movimiento Campesino Recuperacion del Aguán (MOCRA). Both had been involved in the so called ‘re-tomas’ – campesino land occupations which were stepped up in 2009 when yet again the results of agreements failed to materialize.
But the problems of the Aguán are national in nature and scale. Cases of torture, rape, murder, intimidation go uninvestigated, and are not pursued by a moribund judiciary and authorities either too scared to act or who collude with the landowners. Big investors, whilst crucial for national growth and local development if their investments are properly managed, are given overwhelming support, incentives and almost unrestricted access to policy makers, whilst grassroots social sectors remain on the fringes. Protests are met with a hard-line reaction and the remaining space for civil society to speak out is shrinking. Honduras is a country to watch in 2013, but unless the government gets a grip it may be one to watch for all the wrong reasons.