As Honduran elections near, US diplomats seek end to leadership crisis

A US delegation held talks with Honduran leaders Zelaya and Micheletti Wednesday. With the Nov. 29 presidential elections end the crisis?

Arnulfo Franco/AP
Army soldiers guard boxes of general election ballots in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Tuesday.

US envoys are in Honduras trying to broker a last-minute deal between ousted President Manuel Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti ahead of presidential elections Nov. 29.

Many nations have threatened not to recognize the results of the Nov. 29 race if constitutional order is not first restored. On Tuesday, 16 members of the US Congress sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do the same – which could indefinitely prolong Central America's worst political crisis in decades.

Behind the world stage, however, Honduran electoral officials are on a whirlwind mission – trying to educate electoral observers and boost turnout for what might be the most controversial race its officials have ever witnessed. "We must continue on anyway," says Juan Garcia, a spokesman for the Honduran Supreme Electoral Court (TSE).

On a recent Saturday, a group of roughly 30 Hondurans – homemakers, young professionals, blue-collar workers – sat in a sweltering elementary school classroom in the historic center of Tegucigalpa learning the country's electoral law.

For six hours, they simulated election day, pulling votes out of ballot boxes as their instructor, Harold Pacheco, showed them how to analyze results

This kind of electoral training is taking place across the country. TSE aims to reach 180,000 such pupils this year – up from 30,000 in the previous presidential elections in 2005. "The vote is even more important this year because of the political crisis," says Mr. Pacheco.

Will November's election solve the crisis?

Many Hondurans hope that election day resolves the crisis sparked after Mr. Zelaya was kicked out of the country June 28 for considering constitutional change. But the election will only become a solution if Hondurans take it seriously, and many, particularly those who support Zelaya, say they plan to stay home.

"No way, never," says taxi driver Marco Tulio shaking his head, when asked if he plans to cast a ballot. "What is the point of voting if they can just take out of office the one who is democratically elected?"

Honduran electoral officials do not just face opposition at home. The international community has also balked at the legitimacy of the race. The letter by members of the US Congress, sent Oct. 27 ahead of the US envoy visit, spelled it out clearly:

"The vast majority of our neighbors in the region, including Brazil and Mexico, have clearly indicated that they will not recognize the results of elections held under the coup regime," the letter stated. "It is time for the administration to join this growing hemispheric and international consensus and unambiguously state that elections organized by an undemocratic government that has denied critics of the regime the right to free speech, assembly, and movement, cannot and will not be considered free and fair by our government."

New talks, shepherded by the Organization of American States (OAS) earlier this month, broke down over the question of Zelaya's return to power to carry out the remainder of his term. Zelaya is currently holed up in the Brazilian Embassy after sneaking back into the country Sept. 21.

The US delegation, which includes Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, met with both sides Wednesday to try and help resolve the four-month-old crisis. "They're urging both sides to show flexibility and redouble their efforts to bring this crisis to an end," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington.

As is common in times of crisis, citizens have become politically invigorated on both sides of the debate, with young people at the front of protest marches in Tegucigalpa demanding solutions. That same motivation is apparent at the TSE training day. "It is more important than ever to vote," says Delmar Lainez, a 24-year-old unemployed salesman who is volunteering as an electoral observer for his party. "I'm motivated by our commitment to change the way things are here."

Will Hondurans vote?

But the crisis has also cast doubts on election day. A recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) this month showed that 81 percent of Hondurans say the country is moving in the wrong direction; Mr. Micheletti's government has long maintained that elections will represent the end of the crisis.

But that will only work if it is considered fair. In the GQR poll, 54 percent say elections will be legitimate under the interim government compared to 42 percent who say they will not be legitimate.

Some fear this could translate into historic lows at voting booths across the country. Trust has been lost, particularly for those who support Zelaya, but even for those who disagree with his ouster, as the main institutions in the country – from the Supreme Court to the military – played a role in how events unfolded the day Zelaya was deposed.

"The biggest loser is democracy," says Leticia Salomon, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

Mr. Garcia declines to estimate voter turnout this year. But Father German Calix, the executive secretary of the Catholic charity Caritas in Honduras, says that it could be low because the credibility of political parties has been lost. "There are many people who say they are not going to vote in these conditions," he says.

"It's the same candidates as always, the same who do nothing," says Ima Avila, a medical equipment saleswoman in Tegucigalpa who says this year she plans not to vote for the first time in her life.

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