Honduras election crisis: violent clashes and no winner in sight

Presidential candidates include a Speedo-loving former game-show host and a pro-business lawyer

Demonstrators set on fire campaign posters of Juan Orlando Hernandez in front of the US embassy
(Image credit: Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Honduras has been shaken by a surge of political violence after its contested presidential election two weeks ago.

“The extreme electoral irregularities and the charged context in which they arose are threatening to inflame instability for years to come,” Al Jazeera English writes.

Incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez, a pro-business lawyer representing the right-wing National party, officially won, but the Honduran constitution prohibits the re-election of sitting or former leaders. To get around this, The Guardian says, Hernandez used a “contentious” 2016 court ruling to justify his bid.

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Opposition contender Salvador Nasralla, a former game show host, cried foul, alleging vote tampering. He appealed for an international arbiter to oversee a recount and encouraged supporters to demonstrate. At least 14 people have died in post-election protests, Voice of America reports.

With the threat of more violence and a shaky democratic future for one of the US’s key allies, what are the implications for the region?

How did we get here?

This year’s vote was the first time an incumbent president has stood for re-election since the 1980 transition from dictatorship to democracy, university professor Eugenio Sosa told The Guardian.

Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, drawn up in 1982, prohibited the re-election of presidents and limited them to a single four-year term, Al Jazeera English writes. Any attempt to modify the law was grounds for removal from office and a ten-year ban.

However, the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 2015 in a highly controversial ruling – merely six years earlier, leftist Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup for trying to reverse the ban through a referendum.

Meet the candidates

Hernandez, 48, is a staunch US ally and seen as a “useful partner” in Latin America, The New York Times reports. However, he has been accused of human rights abuses, writes The Miami Herald, while in 2015, he admitted his 2013 presidential campaign received money from companies linked to a corruption scandal that involved taking money from the social security system, although he had “nothing to do” with the scandal.

“Washington helped legitimise the post-coup government that set in motion the fraught conditions for this contested election,” Al Jazeera English says. “Since then, the United States has provided $114 million in security aid and unwavering support to Honduras.”

Nasralla, 64, a “non-traditional” politician and a long-shot, has a passion for Speedos and once claimed to have slept with 700 women, Bloomberg says. When he ran for president in 2013, he received a little more than 13% of the vote. This time, he campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

The Los Angeles Times reports that his alliance contains Zelaya’s Liberty and Refoundation Party and he has “shifted his political discourse to the left”, making him attractive to young Hondurans.

However, the paper also compares Nasralla to US President Donald Trump, in that he is “a game-show host, sports broadcaster, beauty-pageant emcee and indefatigable promoter of his own singular brand”. In addition, the Honduran politician is a prolific poster on Twitter and Facebook and has been accused of arrogance and narcissism.

When a lead isn't a lead

Controversy around the election started almost immediately after the vote, when Nasralla appeared to have an early lead of 5%. The electoral commission suspended publication of the results for almost 24 hours and after that, Nasralla trailed by 52,000 votes. An analysis by The Economist found the chance of a vote percentage swing such as this was “close to zero”.

In the event, both men claimed victory, with Nasralla first calling for a recount and then a total annulment of the results.

No winner has yet been officially declared. Street protests, meanwhile, have turned violent, prompting a state of emergency and dusk-to-dawn curfew, Deutsche Welle writes.

Is there an end in sight?

“This ends when the United States, the Organisation of American States, and the European Union understand that Honduras doesn’t want drug traffickers in charge of our country,” Nasralla told the Miami Herald. “Honduras wants freedom.”

Hernandez has responded to the uprisings with a “violent crackdown, a curfew and a suspension of constitutional rights that has left at least fourteen people dead and hundreds detained, with some of the repression stemming from US-trained security forces”, Al Jazeera reports.

Some restrictions are now understood to have been lifted and the future of Honduras is expected to be decided in the next few weeks. There is speculation that either Nasralla could be pressured into accepting a compromise, or Hernandez will try to run out the clock. An official result is required by 26 December.

As for Honduras’s relationship with the US, the Trump administration is non-committal and the State Department says it will work with whoever is declared the official winner.

While vague, the Los Angeles Times says, this has at least “pushed back against a perception among many Hondurans that the Trump administration supports President Hernandez”.

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