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Could the ruling party of Honduras ‘buy’ another election?

In the lead up to Sunday’s vote, politicians and activists aligned with the ruling National Party have been feverishly doling out cash and promises of future payments totaling well over a hundred million dollars in what critics say is a desperate attempt to swing the election in its favor.
Publicado 27 Nov 2021 – 06:30 AM EST | Actualizado 27 Nov 2021 – 11:07 AM EST
Rafael Aguilar, the Mayor of Ojojona, at an event to hand out $300 'Bicentenary Bonus,' payments in the run up to the Honduran presidential election. Crédito: Facebook

OJOJONA, Honduras - A few days before Honduras holds a crucial general election on Sunday, Adolfo Valladares, 50, already had his vote set in stone.

“I’m going to vote for the National Party all the way down the ballot,” said Valladares, a subsistence farmer from the mountaintop town of Ojojona, about an hour outside the capital Tegucigalpa.

His vote wasn’t decided because of a candidate he likes or the party’s proposals, but rather because of a promise that he’d receive a direct-cash transfer, called a bonus, in December if he votes for the ruling National Party – and they win. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t even vote,” he said.

Across the country, National Party politicians and activists have feverishly been doling out cash and promises of future payments totaling well over a hundred million dollars in what critics say is a desperate attempt to swing the election in its favor.

“It’s blatant abuse [of public funds] by the current government to promote the National Party candidates,” said Gustavo Irias, director of the watchdog CESPAD. “What we see is really vote buying.”

Four years after a disputed election that was decided by roughly 50,000 votes, hundreds of thousands of households have been targeted by the campaign in the three months leading up to the November 28 vote.

“We know the impact that this can have in electoral terms in a post-pandemic situation where the government figures tell us how poverty, and extreme poverty, have increased,” said Irias.

A report published earlier this month by the National Institute of Statistics found that 74 percent of the population lived below the poverty line – the highest percentage since a return to democracy four decades ago. More than half the nation lives in extreme poverty, meaning their income is insufficient to fulfill their most basic needs.

'Bicentenary bonus'

In the picturesque former mining town of Ojojona, the vote-buying campaign is on full display.

A week before election day, the National Party’s candidate for mayor, Rafael Aguilar, hosted an event attended by hundreds during which $300 payments – more than most earn in a month – known as the ' Bicentenary Bonus,' named for this year’s 200 th anniversary of independence from Spain, were handed out. Pictures from the event shared by Aguilar on Facebook show him speaking before a large banner promoting the party’s presidential candidate, Nasry Asfura, and gladhanding with the crowd.

Although Aguilar does not yet hold public office, he took credit for the distribution of bonuses funded by the government. “Our effort bears fruits,” he wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page, promising that more would come once he was mayor. After first agreeing to an interview, Aguilar did not respond to subsequent calls and texts from Univision.

$126 million

The bicentenary bonus was created in October along with another direct-cash transfer for persons affected by climate change, including back-to-back major hurricanes that hit the country last November. Together, the two bonuses are funded with $126 million aimed at reaching more than 400,000 households – potentially influencing as much as a fifth of the electorate. In comparison, the total amount of campaign spending reported by all the political parties combined in 2017 totaled roughly $40 million.

“It’s clear that when the elections approach, they invent this,” said Ismael Zepeda, an economist at the thinktank FOSDEH. “How come those affected, especially from the northern area who experienced the impact [of the hurricanes], were not given the bonus in the moment?”

'Better Life bonus'

The new bonuses come on top of tens of millions of dollars in existing ones that are part of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s signature social-welfare program called Vida Mejor, or A Better Life, which he concocted while still a legislator and has played a crucial role in his rise to the presidency and then reelection in 2017.

A few weeks ago, a brother of Valladares who has young children received a conditional-cash transfer called the 'Vida Mejor bonus'. This bonus of over $400 is aimed at decreasing school absenteeism, conditioning a series of transfers throughout the school year on the attendance of the household’s children. Typically, this bonus starts at the beginning of the school year in February, not the end as in this example.

Since this bonus is potentially an annual boon for poor families, it was one of the most effective vote-buying mechanisms in the 2017 election, as parents who wanted to receive the bonus again the next year were forced to vote for the ruling National Party in many cases. Like Valladares, his brother switched his party allegiance and promised to vote for the National Party all the way down the ballot in order to receive the bonus again next year.

Application form

To obtain the bonuses in Ojojona, residents must fill out an application that is then delivered to National Party activists. Univision obtained one of the applications and the political implications are clear. People are asked questions that include how many votes are in their household, what their designated voting center is, whether or not they have obtained the new identity card needed to vote in this election, and perhaps most telling of all, what they think of the party’s mayoral candidate Aguilar.

Inside the local party headquarters, its exterior plastered with stickers and a giant poster supporting presidential candidate Asfura, Univision observed stacks of applications piled high. Activists estimated that roughly 5,000 bonuses of all kinds had been distributed or promised by the campaign since September – in a town with a population of around 12,000 people.

Shadow government

The person who decides whether or not a bonus is approved is Aguilar, they said. Under this system, Aguilar is essentially operating a shadow government during his campaign through which massive amounts of public funds are canalized.

The scheme is being replicated in cities and towns throughout the country. Videos of people lining up for bonuses, sometimes as long as several city blocks, have gone viral on social media. In some cases, the bonuses are a reward for party loyalists to shore up the base, in others an attempt to buy the votes from people who are independent or sympathetic to other parties. It’s a repeat of what happened ahead of the 2017 election, but perhaps this time on an even larger scale.

“The strategy is clear in the sense that there is more poverty, and therefore the clientelist policy is stronger and vote buying is more effective,” said Irias. “It’s definitely a bigger effort than what was done in 2017.”

Not all attempts to buy votes will ultimately be successful, but if an average of just 300 votes are bought in each of the 298 municipalities in Honduras, it would be more than enough to surpass the margin of victory from the last election. This year’s presidential election between Asfura and Xiomara Castro, who is the candidate for a coalition of opposition parties, is expected to be close again, with many observers believing that Castro has the edge in popularity.

But in recognition of the need to overcome the scheme at the polls, the opposition is hoping for high turnout from its voters. “In the end, as they say, mass voting kills fraud,” said Irias.