Honduras vote: More parties, new politics?

Libre, a new party led by the wife of the ousted president, is a frontrunner among 8 parties competing in the upcoming vote. It's a sign of how fed up many Hondurans are.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters/File
Honduras' former President Manuel Zelaya (2nd l.) and his wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya (r.) greet supporters in Santa Barbara, Honduras, July 1, 2012.

Yamileth Gonzalez was resigned to the idea that she would never be part of the political mainstream in this Central American nation.

Despite about 10 years of eligibility, she has only ever voted once because she felt that her country’s two traditional parties, which have alternated in power for the past 50 years, did not represent her.

Now, Ms. Gonzales is a campaign manager for a new left-leaning party, Libre – one of four new parties looking to upend the political landscape in the Nov. 24 elections. Candidates from eight parties are running for Honduras’s presidency, but experts consider Libre to be the only genuine contender among the newcomers.

“In this party there are many people that never dreamed of obtaining an electoral position, and in this moment, they are doing it,” says Gonzales, a young employee for a farmers’ rights organization.

The glut of candidates, experts say, is the result of declining confidence in the two traditional parties since the 2009 coup, which saw President Manuel Zelaya seized by military officers and flown to Costa Rica on a military plane. His wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is Libre’s candidate for president.

“The coup has given origin to a party that paradoxically is going to question the power of the groups that orchestrated the coup,” says Sergio Suazo, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. “That is an extraordinary thing.”

Post-coup Honduras

The coup aggravated Honduras’ already serious problems: the country has the highest murder rate in the world, fueled by rampant drug trafficking, gang violence, and weak law enforcement.  Large debts and little international assistance have left it in economic disarray, and corruption is rife within its institutions.

Honduras’ confluence of problems, experts say, is hurting the credibility of both traditional political groups: the centrist Liberal Party and highly conservative National Party.

The unlikely story of the Liberty and Refoundation Party, otherwise known as Libre, or Free, began with Mr. Zelaya’s ousting after he pushed a referendum asking Hondurans to reform its constitution – an attempt, some say, to lift presidential term limits. Street protests erupted decrying his removal and lasted for months. Some rallies were led by Ms. Castro, who in that period was transformed from what citizens viewed as a low-key first lady into a populist heroine. Zelaya finally returned permanently from exile in May 2011 and helped form Libre as the political arm of the resistance.

Libre draws its strength from an alliance of human-rights defenders, students, labor unions, women’s groups, farmers, indigenous movements, gay-rights organizations, and others who found themselves on common ground following the coup. Few of these groups had previously ventured into mainstream politics, but the formation of Libre pushed many to do so.

But participation has proven risky. According to Rights Action, a Toronto-based human rights group that works in Central America, 18 Libre activists, candidates, or their family members have been murdered since May 2012.

 “Those that are participating as candidates in the election are very vulnerable,” says Bertha Oliva, head of Honduras’ Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared, a leading rights group.  “But people will vote for Libre, even though they might kill them.”

'A voice'

Images of presidential hopefuls and congressional candidates are plastered on nearly every lamppost along the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital city. Absent among them, however, are images of Castro and other Libre party candidates.

Unable to afford much in the way of campaign materials or ads, Libre has instead formed groups called “colectivos” that solicit support in door-to-door campaigns.

One of these volunteers is Fidelina Esperanza Cardona, a women’s rights advocate. Since police gunned down her husband in 1986 for refusing to give up his rifle, Ms. Cardona wakes every day at 4 a.m. to tend to corn and bean fields and to feed livestock on her 22-acre farm.

Cardona says she previously supported the National Party, but always felt marginalized by its leadership. As part of Libre, she says, “I feel that I have a voice and that I am going to have a voice.”

In the afternoons, she talks to disadvantaged women. Many are single or have lost a spouse to violence, she says, and must provide for families without access to credit, healthcare, or land ownership. These days, her conversations – which take place on buses, in homes, or at any other place she can reach people – focus on the party and the candidacy of Castro.

“As a woman my only hope is Xiomara,” she says.

When she was first lady, Castro did not have a large, visible role in her husband’s government. This has led some to label her a proxy for Zelaya, who was limited to a single term in office under the constitution. Experts are divided on whether she would govern from the left-of-center or the hard left. Before his ouster, Zelaya, elected on a Liberal ticket, had pushed for wage increases and land reforms and adopted the popular rhetoric of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Mr. Suazo, the political scientist, predicts she will hew closer to the center.

“When you read the statutes of the Libre party,” he says, “it’s easy to recognize that we are not talking about the radical left.”

The prevailing issue Castro faces is insecurity: there were 86 murders per 100,000 people last year— the world’s highest— and in the first six months of 2013, there have been 3,457 murders, only 67 less than all of last year, according to the Violence Observatory at the National University of Honduras.

Castro has promised to increase and improve community policing but is opposed to soldiers patrolling the streets. The military solution – already exercised here – is supported by her closest opponent, National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández.

To win, Libre will need to reach beyond its base and attract undecided voters, many of whom are disillusioned with the traditional parties but may be afraid of Libre’s populism, Suazo says.

Mr. Hernández and his party have painted Castro and Libre as closet left-wing radicals. A late September CID Gallup poll of 1,220 people estimated Castro would receive 29 percent of the vote, just ahead of Hernández with 27 percent, putting the two in a statistical dead heat. However, an October poll by Paradigma found Castro trailing Hernández 25.7 percent to 22.2 percent. That survey of 4,025 eligible voters had a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points.

At a street corner rally last month, Libre supporters waved hand-painted red-and-black banners and bobbed to a pop song with the words: “with Xiomara, we will overcome.”

One participant, Angel Fonseca, says his interest in politics didn’t go further than television until the coup. At the rally, however, he shouts at oncoming traffic, “Let’s Go, People!” Some honk in support; most look on with indifference. Others shout insults.

After about two hours, the music stops and Mr. Fonseca tucks his banner into a gray plastic bag to conceal it during his walk home.

“My mother fears that something might happen to me,” he says. “But I tell her not to worry, this is something I have to do.”

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