TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Hondurans are voting today in tense general elections that are likely to have repercussions far beyond the Central American country.
For the opposition, the elections represent a chance to reinstate the rule of law after eight years of systematic dismantling of democratic institutions by the departing president, Juan Orlando Hernández.
The stakes are arguably even higher for the leaders of the party in power. If they lose the protections afforded by being in office, they could face charges of corruption and drug trafficking in investigations conducted by prosecutors in the United States and Honduras.
The elections are also being closely watched in Washington.
Having made Central America a foreign policy priority, the Biden administration has not stemmed the tide of authoritarianism and corruption in the region. The country’s economic and political malaise, as well as chronic violence, is driving Hondurans to join the tens of thousands of Central Americans heading to the United States’ southern border every month, leading to Republican attacks and potentially damaging Democratic prospects in the upcoming midterm elections.
Polls show a tight race between the candidate of the governing National Party, Nasry Asfura, the charismatic mayor of the capital, Tegucigalpa; and Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya, a leftist former president deposed in a 2009 coup. Both candidates, in different ways, promise a break with Mr. Hernández’s deeply unpopular government.
Both sides have portrayed the elections as the decisive battle for the country’s destiny. But the prospects for radical change are poor: The main parties in Honduras have all been marred by accusations of corruption or links with organized crime.
“At best, you will get an outcome that won’t be great,” said Daniel Restrepo, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, who was a senior adviser on Latin America to President Barack Obama. “The hope is to inject more legitimacy into the system.”
A more responsive government with a strong popular mandate, he said, could also help stem migration.
“If people think their voices are not being heard, they are more likely to leave,” he said.
A legitimately elected new president could provide the Biden administration with a desperately needed partner in a region whose leaders are increasingly challenging Washington’s economic and political influence.
The governments of all three nations bordering Honduras have further dismantled U.S.-backed democratic checks on their power since President Biden took office, despite his administration’s promise to spend $4 billion to fight corruption and impunity as two of the root causes of migration.
Nicaragua’s authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, jailed every credible opposition candidate who might have challenged him, allowing him to win a fourth consecutive term practically unopposed in an election this month.
In Guatemala, the government disbanded an anti-corruption investigative body and arrested some of its prosecutors after they began looking into allegations of bribery involving President Alejandro Giammattei.
And the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, is quashing independent voices and openly challenging the United States as he accumulates power, prompting Washington’s top diplomat to leave the country this month for lack of cooperation from the Salvadoran government.
In Honduras itself, American and Honduran prosecutors accuse Mr. Hernández of building a pervasive system of graft, allowing drug trafficking organizations to penetrate every level of his government. His brother, Tony Hernández, is serving a life sentence in the United States for helping ship tons of cocaine, in a case that has also named the president a co-conspirator.
The president, Mr. Hernández, has denied all accusations against him and has not been charged with any crime.
“We have reached the bottom, and I don’t know how much further we can sink,” said Porfirio Lobo, a former Honduran president with the National Party, whose wife served a prison sentence on a corruption conviction and whose son is imprisoned for drug trafficking. “There was always corruption, but never at the level we’re seeing now.”
The presidential campaign was marred by violence, vote-buying and widespread fears of fraud and unrest. But to many voters on both sides of the political spectrum, the elections are a reason for hope in a country where many young people see emigration as the only option.
“This is the most important election in the nation’s history,” said Roberto Lagos, a Honduran economist based in the United States. “It will determine the country’s direction for decades to come.”
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The presidential vote is billed as Honduras’s last chance to avoid the abyss. What the danger is depends on which side you’re on.
The leftist opposition is warning voters that the governing party has increased its hold on the country’s security forces, courts and the congress over its 12 years in power, and one more term with it would push the country decisively into authoritarianism and the grip of organized crime.
The bloc in power, the National Party, is painting their leading challenger as a Communist who would ally Honduras to Venezuela and legalize abortion, upsetting a deeply conservative society.
Polls show a tight race between the National Party’s candidate, Nasry Asfura, who is the charismatic mayor of the capital, Tegucigalpa; and Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya, a leftist former president.
The high stakes and the expectation of a close outcome are fueling fears of fraud and unrest among the supporters of both parties.
Both candidates, in different ways, promise a break with the deeply unpopular outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose time in office was marked by endemic corruption, weak economic growth and accusations of drug trafficking.
The party of Ms. Castro, who is running to become Honduras’ first female president, is trying to capitalize on voters’ desire for change after 12 years under the National Party.
“We’re united by one expression: Get out JOH!” Ms. Castro told a chanting crowd of several thousand at a recent campaign rally in the city of San Pedro Sula, referring to the widely used acronym of Mr. Hernández’s name.
Mr. Asfura, a wealthy former construction businessman with the governing party, calls himself Papi, a Spanish term of endearment that means “Daddy.” He is running under the slogan “Daddy Is Different,” to set himself apart from the current president. Mr. Hernández, whose approval rating is close to single digits, is never mentioned at his rallies or seen on campaign materials.
In contrast to the aloof Mr. Hernández, Mr. Asfura has cast himself as a can-do Everyman, introducing himself to voters as “Daddy at your service,” and jumping into campaign crowds in whitewashed jeans and construction boots.
His proposals have been limited to promising “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The National Party is relying heavily on handouts ranging from cash transfers to construction materials ahead of the elections. Their activists have warned voters that this economic aid would stop if they lost power.
The National Party has also painted Ms. Castro as a radical leftist, which could hurt her in a conservative country shaped by a close alliance to the United States during the Cold War.
Fears of a sharp leftward shift helped topple the government of Ms. Castro’s husband, Mr. Zelaya. He was elected president but ousted in a military coup in 2009 after following the policies of Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez.
Ms. Castro has tried to both appease the leftist supporters of Mr. Zelaya and appeal to the more moderate sectors of society. She has built a broad coalition with centrist parties and brought respected technocrats into her economic team, which got the endorsement of Honduras’ business sector.
MEXICO CITY — After President Juan Orlando Hernández claimed victory in elections tainted by irregularities in 2017, the Trump administration brushed aside the concerns of members of Congress and threw its weight behind the troubled leader’s hold on power.
That move did not immediately lead to a smooth working relationship between the two countries. Nearly a year after the election, as more than a thousand Hondurans marched toward the United States in a migrant caravan, President Trump lashed out at his ally for failing to halt the procession and threatened to cut aid to the country.
“The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!” Mr. Trump wrote on his Twitter account.
Mr. Trump later said on Twitter that he was also prepared to end U.S. financial assistance not just to Honduras, but also to its neighbors, Guatemala and El Salvador, “if they allow their citizens, or others, to journey through their borders and up to the United States, with the intention of entering our country illegally.”
Those threats became policy. In 2019, Mr. Trump froze $450 million in aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in response to their inability to curb migration.
In the months after that decision, Mr. Hernández and his counterparts in Central America fell in line, signing agreements with the Trump administration that required migrants who passed through one of the three countries to first seek asylum there before applying in the United States.
Last year, Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, met with Mr. Hernández in the Honduran capital and called him a “valued and proven partner” with whom his team shared “such a strong and productive bilateral relationship.”
Three months before Mr. Wolf’s visit, Mr. Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, known as Tony, was convicted in a New York court on charges of trafficking cocaine. Witnesses at the trial said the president, Mr. Hernández, looked the other way in exchange for bribes that financed his campaign, though he has repeatedly denied those claims.
Mr. Biden has tried a different approach in Honduras, with .administration officials keeping some distance from Mr. Hernández, a signal that the U.S. support for the leader has waned.
Earlier this year, Congress listed several Honduran officials among “corrupt and undemocratic actors,” including a former president from Mr. Hernández’s party. A group of Democratic legislators also put a bill forward in February that would cut aid to Honduran security forces and impose sanctions on the president, though it has not yet come up for a vote.
Brian A. Nichols, the top State Department official focused on the Western Hemisphere, visited Honduras in the week preceding the vote to “encourage the peaceful, transparent conduct of free and fair national elections.” Mr. Nichols did not meet with Mr. Hernández.
Voting began at 7 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. local time. The electoral council is set to announce preliminary results three hours after the polls close, including an estimate of the final results.
That timeline is subject to change, however, if there are problems, like unrest or long lines at the polls.
With memories of violence and political protests during the 2017 elections still fresh in the minds of many Hondurans, there is widespread fear of unrest and further political instability after the election, and many businesses are shutting down as a precaution.
Polls have shown the race growing increasingly tight, with both sides certain of victory. That makes it unlikely that either will concede early, further stoking fears of violence. The 2017 vote was also marred by inconsistencies, and the results remain widely questioned.
The country has since enacted several electoral reforms, but critics say the changes have been insufficient.
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