Honduras election: what to do when both candidates declare victory?

Conservative presidential candidate Hernández has a six-point lead, but his closest contender refuses to concede. The poll reflects Honduras's deep divides four years after a military coup.

Jorge Cabrera/REUTERS
A vendor arranges newspapers covering the preliminary tally of presidential candidates Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party and Xiomara Castro of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) on the front page, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras November 25, 2013.

In a tight presidential race, Juan Orlando Hernández, the conservative ruling party candidate, has claimed victory with a slight edge in the voting.

But with just over half the vote counted, his leftist rival, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is refusing to concede, setting up a potential showdown in a country that can ill afford it.

The tight, highly contested election is a reflection of a country that is still divided four years after Ms. Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a military coup. 

“Whoever wins is going to have an uphill struggle to heal the wounds that have divided Hondurans,” says Eric L. Olson, a Central America policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

With 54 percent of the vote counted this morning, the electoral authority showed Mr. Hernández from the National Party leading by six percentage points, with about 34 percent support. Castro had about 28 percent support.

After a relatively smooth election day, with few irregularities reported, it was a tense night in the capital as both sides announced victory in front of supporters. Castro – of the newly created Libre party – has refused to back down, pledging to take legal action as supporters talked of staging protests.

With a glut of new candidates and no runoff, the next president will win with only a third of the vote. The combination of a president not elected by the majority of Hondurans and a fractured new congress could make it hard for this Central American nation to overcome its many challenges, including a soaring murder rate, an increase in poverty, and weakened and corrupt institutions.

“It will be difficult, not impossible but very difficult, to develop a consensus around a reform agenda that Honduras so desperately needs,” Mr. Olson says.

More than an election

Honduras is one of the world’s deadliest countries with 86 murders per 100,000 people last year, according to the National Autonomous University. Each day brings a new set of bloody images on newspapers’ front pages, and for those who can’t live behind gated streets, crime and extortion have become a part of everyday life.

Geoff Thale, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, says Honduras’ difficulties “have implications and concerns” for the United States and the region.

“Honduras is facing a huge crisis,” Mr. Thale says. “The crisis isn’t just about these elections.”

Honduras has become a prime trafficking route for drugs, situated between the coca growers of South America and Mexican traffickers. Planes loaded with cocaine land at hidden airfields, and drug boats speed up its unprotected Caribbean coastline. According to the US State Department, more than 80 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States gets moved through Honduras.

Besides violence and drug trafficking, Honduras is in dire economic straits, with an estimated 71 percent of its population of more than 8 million living in poverty. Its public debt has ballooned to more than $7 billion dollars.

Still, many Hondurans who lined up at election centers Sunday came with high hopes. Kristela Marquez wore a black T-shirt that read: “With democratic values, we all win.”

Ms. Marquez was voting for the first time, she says, because protests from the coup had kept her from voting in the last presidential elections.

“This is a highly anticipated election,” she says, “There are new parties, new candidates, and the people are excited.”

Though there were isolated reports of irregularities by election monitors, including people being turned away at the polls and deceased citizens showing up on voting registries, the voting went smoothly in the election monitored by international observers. The US ambassador and the head of the European Union election observers said the elections appeared to be clear of fraud.

'I just want a decent job'

In the hillside neighborhood of Comayagüela, people lined up in a narrow corridor on Election Day, waiting patiently to enter an elementary school that was being used as a voting center. Junior Lopez, who is unemployed, said that he voted for Hernández.

“I just want a job that pays a decent salary,” Mr. Lopez says.

After voting for Castro, Denis Alvarado shuffled to his car outside the polling station at the city’s main sports complex, with the help of a walker.  A motorcycle accident left Mr. Alvarado with limited mobility.  His goal is to walk again, a challenge he says will be easier to overcome than the challenges facing his country.

“There are problems with security. There is no work,” he says. “Honduras needs a change.”

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