Honduran political crisis casts status as democracy into doubt

Only six months before Honduras's scheduled presidential election, the country is struggling to resolve a deep political crisis that casts doubt on the legitimacy of its young democracy. In what one Western diplomat here called Honduras's ``Watergate,'' President Roberto Suazo C'ordova is using his broad control over the two main political parties and the judiciary to maneuver his candidate into the presidency.

Dissident factions of the President's ruling Liberal Party are trying to thwart his manipulations. The country's unions and peasant organizations are threatening to hold a general strike unless the President compromises.

The crisis calls into question the legitimacy of Honduras's three-year-old civilian government which the United States has tried to promote. The Reagan administration, calling Honduras a model democracy in Central America, has made the country a cornerstone of US-Central America policy.

``Honduras has a democracy in form but not in function,'' says Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, a Christian Democratic member of the Honduran National Assambly.

At the heart of the crisis is a struggle over who will name candidates for the November presidential election.

President Suazo and his loyalists within the Liberal Party are on one side and dissident factions within the party and other opposition political leaders are on the other.

``Suazo C'ordova doesn't want to give up the presidency, so he has manipulated from the beginning,'' said a Western diplomat.

Suazo was elected in 1982 after two decades of military domination in Honduras. By law he may not run in this election.

The President vetoed an electoral reform law passed by the Honduran National Assembly in April which called for party primaries. This would have led to challenges to Suazo's hand-picked candidate, Oscar Mej'ia Arellano.

There is another twist to this political crisis which came to the forefront over a month ago. In an effort to weaken Suazo's hold over the judiciary, the Congress appointed five judges as a new Supreme Court last month. Members of Congress had claimed that the existing court was corrupt and was acting on the President's orders.

The nation now has two supreme courts, neither of which can function.

``There has never been a crisis like this in Honduras,'' said one political observer. ``Honduras has no supreme court, and the President doesn't obey the Congress.''

Honduran labor unions and peasant organizations have stepped into the conflict in recent weeks. ``We have to have primaries so the people can have a presidential candidate that really represents them,'' said Jos'e Ramon Escobar, a worker, at a May Day rally.

Holding legitimate and orderly elections in November may be difficult. Diplomats say that despite lengthy meetings held over the past few weeks, key players are still holding fast to their postions. There is a possibility that every one will agree to a proposal by Suazo to hold ``direct elections,'' in which each party would be able to run several candidates.

However, this ``expanded ballot'' could create a slew of logistical problems, such as deciding how to divvy up campaign funds and list the candidates on the ballot. ``The implementation of it [the extended ballot] would be a horror show,'' said one Western diplomat. And if the status quo is maintained and Suazo's candidate goes to the race alone for the Liberal Party, ``the elections can't really be called democratic,'' said another Western diplomat.

This week is considered critical because after May 24 when the elections are officially announced and candidates are able to register, making any changes will be more difficult.

This political crisis comes four years after the arrival of US Ambassador John D. Negroponte, which marked the beginning of a stepped-up American military and diplomatic presence in Honduras.

The US has sent troops regularly to Honduras to participate in military maneuvers. Also, the US-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas known as the contras have maintained camps in Honduras in their fight against the the ruling Sandinistas.

Last year, the US's strongest ally in Honduras and the region, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Mart'inez, was ousted from his position as Honduran armed forces chief. His successor, Gen. Walter L'opez Reyes, is considered to be more of a nationalist, and less willing to cooperate with the US.

The Honduran military has let the US know that it wants military maneuvers scaled down, and that the country is concerned about the presence of the contras.

Some anti-US sentiment has developed among the general population over the presence of US troops in Honduras, and among some there is a sense that the US has used Honduras as a military base.

On some fronts US policy in Honduras has been successful. The US military maneuvers have kept the leftist Sandinista government edgy about the possibility of a US invasion, and the contra war has drained Nicaragua of human and material resources.

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