In post-election limbo, Hondurans foresee next challenge: rebuilding trust

Protests over last month's disputed presidential election have simmered down, although no victor has been announced. But many Hondurans say the country has hard work ahead to restore their confidence in government, and each other.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters
Salvador Nasralla (r.), presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, listens to Leticia Henriquez, deputy official of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, while formally requesting to annul the results of the still-unresolved presidential election, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Dec. 9.

When protests first exploded here in the days following Honduras’ hotly contested presidential vote, residents like Luis Carlos Hernández were swept up in the action.

The young lawyer’s home is just a block away from the national vote-counting center, at the heart of the at times violent demonstrations. Amid volleys of rocks and tear gas outside his front door, Mr. Hernández ushered his 11-year-old brother and four-year-old nephew into the bathroom, covering their faces with vinegar-soaked rags to protect them from the chemicals seeping in from the street.

“People want to take out these corrupt politicians, they want another system,” Hernández says of the protests that boiled over across the country, demanding more transparency about how votes have been tallied.

Nearly three weeks later, his street is largely back to normal, with late-afternoon traffic jams and vendors hawking avocados and cell phone covers. But it’s clear the country as a whole – which is still awaiting the announcement of its next president – won’t bounce back so quickly.

The ballot count was officially completed earlier this week, with sitting President Juan Orlando Hernández in the lead by roughly 1.6 percentage points. But, under international pressure, the electoral commission (TSE) has been recounting votes from contested polling stations and reviewing evidence of fraud alleged by the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship party before officially announcing a victor.

As protests simmer down and Hondurans have a moment to catch their breath, many here are coming to the realization that no matter who is declared winner of this historic election, the country has a lot of work ahead. The election put front and center a deep-seated lack of trust in political leaders, democratic institutions, and fellow citizens. Rebuilding a path forward will require big changes from all sectors of society, analysts say. 

“This crisis has to be seen as an opportunity for growth,” says Carlos Hernández Martinez, executive director of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), the local Transparency International chapter here. He points to concrete steps that will need to be made by whomever is named president, including the construction of a national dialogue; scrapping the TSE, which lost credibility over the past several weeks; and inviting international involvement in for a reconciliation process.

But, he adds, it’s not just politicians who will need to buckle down. “Society needs to change, too,” he says. 

'Power is not enough'

Close elections and public scrutiny of them have become a common occurrence in Latin America over the past few years. Slim victories in Peru and Ecuador recently put under the microscope the importance of strong institutions and trust, says Roberto Izurieta, the director of Latin American programs at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and a former political campaign consultant in Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay, and other countries across the region. 

“In Peru, there was an even smaller margin of victory and people waited, candidates complained, many said the election wasn’t fair,” Mr. Izurieta says. “But the process moved forward. Why? Because there were strong institutions; there was trust that they could do their job.”

Although Latin America has a long history of authoritarian leaders successfully holding on to power, that isn’t a plausible model anymore, Izurieta says. “In current times, power is just opportunity,” he says, explaining that you may have been elected to office, but that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you please. “It’s a starting point. You need to find common ground, bring people to the table. 

“The main lesson I hope everybody learns from [Honduras’] experience is that power is not enough. A leader has to build trust.”

Napoleon Morillo, the owner of a coffee stand in a bustling Tegucigalpa mall, agrees.

“To move forward from all of this, the next government has to prove it will take a stand against corruption. That’s what’s on the mind of Hondurans,” he says.

“No matter who wins, he has to impose justice on members of his own party [who] are linked to corruption. He has to prove that he’s governing for the people. Then [we] will believe in him, whoever he is.”

Shared responsibility

Social divisions and mistrust in Honduras started long before this presidential election. After the 2009 coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya, there was a crackdown on independent journalism and civil society, citizens were polarized over the changing of the political guard, and current President Hernández’s National Party consolidated power. The Supreme Court was stacked with judges sympathetic to the National Party, and even the fact that Hernández ran in this election is seen as the result of his party’s vast influence and the weakening of democratic institutions. Running for a second consecutive term is barred under the constitution, but was deemed legal last year by the Supreme Court.

After the coup, there were some steps to move society forward, like a truth commission. In retrospect, however, they were quite surface-level efforts, says Mr. Hernández from ASJ.

“It’s become clear that the same divisions that existed after the coup are still present, only now there’s a stronger element of hate,” which concerns him, he says. Some fear whoever wins the election will simply try to condense power and punish the losing party. And this environment of suspicion and mistrust isn’t helped by the emphasis many here seem to put on the negative, he adds.

“We need to learn to denounce wrongdoing with substance and evidence, but we also need to recognize the positives in order to generate a little bit of hope for the country,” Hernández says, pointing to the decrease in homicide rates between 2016 and 2017 as an example.

When the presidential winner is announced, “there needs to be a big social pact, a national dialogue with outside mediation by an international actor” who is seen as neutral, he says of a path forward. From his perspective, that should include groups that were excluded after the coup, like human rights defenders, and the discourse should be public – not hidden behind closed doors.

“There need to be profound political reforms, including on the theme of reelection. We need to decompress the situation, and involve society in these government changes,” he says. “The people have to feel a part of this.”

But the onus for change and building trust doesn’t fall entirely on the political elite. Civil society, church leaders, and citizens all have a role to play, observers say.

“Hondurans need to take initiative to start paying attention to politics, vote, and hold politicians accountable,” says Hernández, the lawyer whose home was caught up in the protests. Demonstrations after the election were widespread, but only about 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in this election.

Corruption isn’t just a problem in the government: Change can start at home or within communities, adds Mr. Morillo, the coffee shop owner. “At the very least, every person must live correctly – be a good father, be a good citizen, don’t run that stoplight, pay your taxes,” he says.

“We have to start with ourselves. One day we will have a good president, but the question [will still be] how we as a culture behave.”

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