Will November elections bring a political shift in Honduras?

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – It is impossible to walk a block along the main drag of this Central American capital without seeing the face of presidential hopeful Juan Orlando Hernández, a longtime fixture of conservative politics here.

Nowhere to be seen, however, is his upstart rival, Xiomara Castro, who narrowly leads him in the polls. And yet of Honduras’ eight candidates vying for the presidential office in Nov. 24 elections, Castro and her new left-leaning Free Party – which lacks even funds for street posters – may have the best chance of all to upend the elections here, poll-watchers say.

For the past 50 years, Honduras has been ruled by two traditional political parties: the centrist Liberal Party and the highly conservative National Party, which many say are made up of the same moneyed elite. But their hold on power is being questioned for the first time as Honduras faces a myriad of problems: soaring murder rates, insecurity, large debts, drug trafficking, corruption and the failure of many of its institutions.

Castro started her campaign with a sizable advantage over Hernández, the president of the National Congress and the National Party candidate. However, since May, Hernández has consistently edged closer in the polls, as his party outspends Free by huge margins. The latest CID-Gallup poll has Castro receiving 29 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for Hernández. The poll claims a 2 percent margin of error.

“This is the first time that in Honduras political power has been put in play,” said Sergio Suazo, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. “Never has [the two parties’] political power been in dispute. That is the big difference.”

From First Lady to resistance leader

Four years ago Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, then president of Honduras, was awakened at gunpoint, escorted to a military plane, and flown to Costa Rica in a military coup. Castro’s Liberty and Refoundation Party, otherwise known as Libre, or Free, has roots in Honduras’ resistance movement – an unlikely confluence of human-rights defenders, students, labor unions, women’s groups, farmers, indigenous movements, gay-rights organizations and others who took to the streets to protest the coup for more than five months in 2009.

Many within these same groups were then united politically for the first time when Zelaya returned from exile in May 2011 and broke with his former party, Liberal, after some in the party supported the coup. A month after his return, he formed the Free Party to serve as the political arm of the resistance. The Stetson-wearing Zelaya is an unlikely leader for the left, as he comes from a wealthy ranching family. But during his presidency he took on an increasingly populist tone. Free would eventually select Castro, Zelaya’s wife, as its presidential candidate.

Castro herself led a number of street protests after the coup, and this converted her in the public eye from a formerly low-profile First Lady into “a victim who was with the people,” said Bertha Oliva, head of Honduras’ Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared, a human rights group founded in 1982.

Juan Orlando Hernández

Honduras’ National Party presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, center in white shirt, leads a march in Tegucigalpa on May 26. General elections in Honduras will be held on Nov. 26. Orlando Sierra/AFP

But some have labeled Castro as a puppet for her husband, whose alleged desire to seek re-election despite constitutional term limits was partly responsible for his unceremonious removal. Zelaya’s detractors have described him as a caudillo, or strongman, trying to make himself in the mold of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and current Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega.

It doesn’t help that Castro often seems all too willing to take a backseat role, letting her husband speak to the press and participating in few debates. And Castro’s campaign is seldom covered by local media, though this stems mainly from the country’s newspaper and television-station owners, who tend to be conservative.

All of this gives the impression of a party content to remain in the shadows until Election Day on Nov. 24. But when Castro’s supporters do hit the streets, it’s with force.

During an Independence Day celebration put on last month by the government, thousands of Free supporters carrying red and black banners – Free’s colors – thronged outside the stadium where the celebration was taking place. Student bands that had been invited to participate by the government marched outside instead, in street clothes, defying official government orders not to do so.

“It’s a party that was born in the streets with the people,” said Agustín Ramos Montes, leader of a farmers’ rights organization. “In Libre we have placed enormous hopes.”

Can anyone make Honduras safe?

It will be difficult, however, for Castro to meet the expectations of Free’s diverse and ardent supporters. She recently told a radio program that she “is not in agreement with gay marriage,” though some of her support comes from gay-rights organizations.

Castro’s main campaign promise is to call an assembly to rewrite the constitution, something her husband had proposed shortly before the coup. Suazo, the political scientist, said this would be difficult for her to achieve, because only Congress can call a constitutional assembly, and Free is unlikely to win a congressional majority.

If she wins, Castro would likely try to ease the country’s financial woes by boosting participation in Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program, which provides oil and gas on preferential terms. She would seek to strengthen ties with other left-leaning nations such as Ecuador and Nicaragua, Suazo predicted.

But the most pressing issue she would face is public security. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 people last year. And there are few signs of a significant drop this year. New military policing units already are being rolled out – a solution supported and implemented by Hernández, the National Party candidate. Castro has said she would focus on community policing but keep the military in its bases.

Hernández, in his campaign, has painted Castro and her party as closet left-wing radicals. This may be resonating with some voters, not least because the campaign material of the resistance can be tinged with a harder rhetoric than Castro or her party professes.

But Hernández must contend with his own reputation as manipulative and untrustworthy.

“People perceive him as a person who is not authentic,” Suazo said. “He is perceived as being calculating politically. That is a big weakness.”

Still, Hernández comes from a powerful party with enormous resources, and has the advantage that he “is holding almost all the key reins of institutional power,” said Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras and a professor of history at University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States.

“Never underestimate the potential for fraud in this context,” she said.

With two candidates with such stark differences, this presidential race has come to polarize the electorate and divide even families. Unlike during past election seasons, few people are displaying campaign slogans on their cars or properties.

“I don’t visit a few uncles now,” said Yamileth Gonzáles, a 28-year-old campaign manager for Free. “Because they ask me, ‘Why do you do all that, going into the streets for that party?’ ”