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Fear of chaos hangs over Sunday's Honduran presidential election

After 12 years in power, the ruling National Party is tainted by accusations of drug trafficking hanging over outgoing president Juan Orlando Hernández. Opposition candidate Xiomara Castro is hoping to avenge a military coup that ousted her husband from the presidency in 2009.
Publicado 28 Nov 2021 – 06:25 AM EST | Actualizado 28 Nov 2021 – 06:25 AM EST
Honduran election candidates Xiomara Castro and Nasry Asfura. Crédito: Getty images

Honduras will choose a new president on Sunday beneath a cloud of uncertainty over who might win or how the process will play out, leading many to fear a repeat of the chaos that followed the disputed 2017 election.

“Everyone expects this election to be controversial and fears that it could prompt another wave of post-election tumult,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. Allegations of fraud in 2017 resulted in widespread protests that were at times brutally repressed, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 people.

In the capital Tegucigalpa, businesses began boarding up their windows more than a week ago and residents have flocked to supermarkets to stock up on essentials.

Fragile system

“We know that the electoral system in Honduras is so fragile that it's not just free and fair elections we have to be worried about, it’s the fact that the electoral system could fall apart and the potential for instability and violence after,” said Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Seattle International Foundation.

But amid so many questions about what might happen on Sunday and in the day’s that come, there’s also a sense of hope. “There is a mixture of fear, but on the other hand I perceive a determination to go to the polls,” said Gustavo Irias, director of the watchdog CESPAD.

Over the past four years, an unprecedented half a million Hondurans have fled as the country was pummeled by the pandemic and a pair of major hurricanes and President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his ruling National Party were mired in a never-ending saga of drug trafficking and corruption allegations.

Hondurans have had enough. “It’s time for a change,” said William Chaver, 20, a nursing student on a recent afternoon in Tegucigalpa’s central park. “The National Party has been in power for 12 years.”

Polls favor Xiomara Castro

Chaver is hoping that leading opposition presidential candidate Xiomara Castro can produce a brighter future for the country. Castro, 62, is the husband of former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who served from 2006 until June 2009 when he was ousted in a military-backed coup.

Castro first ran for president in 2013 as the candidate for the center-left LIBRE Party, which emerged out of a protest movement that followed the coup. This year, she’s backed by a coalition of opposition parties from across the political spectrum.

Independent observers believe Castro enjoys a slight edge over her main opponent, Nasry Asfura, of the conservative National Party. The mayor of Tegucigalpa, Asfura, 63, known as “Papi a la Orden,” or “Daddy at your service,” is popular in his hometown for the infrastructure improvements undertaken during his two terms that have reduced congestion in the city.

'Daddy is different'

But his campaign has been dogged by the shadow of President Hernández and the numerous corruption allegations surrounding his party. In an apparent attempt to distance himself from Hernández, his campaign slogan is “Daddy is different.”

Asfura’s own alleged involvement in a scheme to misappropriate roughly a million dollars in public funds, and his position as the flag bearer of a party drowning in scandals, have made it difficult for the message to stick.

“He’s always been a hard-working man, but the problem is he can’t be different if he’s running with all those questionable candidates,” said Juliette Handal, a businesswoman and former head of the country’s most-powerful chamber of commerce.

Relations with U.S.

The race between Castro and Asfura is expected to be tight. The winner will offer a chance for the United States, which has essentially shunned Hernández, to deal with a new leader, but will also come with challenges of their own.

“Whoever wins, it's still going to be extraordinarily complicated for the United States like it has been since the Biden administration came in in January,” said Olson, noting the corruption allegations against Asfura and his party as well as those against Castro’s husband dating back to his administration.

Honduras will also elect a new Congress, city hall in all 298 municipalities, and representatives to Central American parliament. The fight for control of Congress is arguably just as important as that for the presidency. The next legislature will have the chance to reshape a troubled justice system by electing a new Supreme Court, attorney general and other key positions.

Fate of Hernández

The outcome of the election could also determine the fate of President Hernández, who has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers and whose brother was convicted in a New York court of drug trafficking in 2019.

Hernández has vehemently denied the accusations, but appears destined to be indicted as soon as he leaves office in late January. If the opposition wins, then he would potentially lose protection from extradition.

With so much at stake, the potential for conflict is sky high. Hondurans are hoping that clear and clean results can prevent the chaos of the past. “May people go out to vote and then there be no mess after the election whether the [opposition] wins or the National Party wins,” said Chaver. “It would affect us a lot because our economy is already bad.”