Contrary to what many expected, there was no election-day violence or blatant fraud in Honduras this time, and thousands peacefully flooded the streets of Tegucigalpa last night to celebrate the victory of leftist Xiomara Castro after a tense presidential race.
A former first lady who campaigned on promises of 'direct democracy,' rooting out corruption, and ending Honduras’ tradition of narco-politics, Castro will be the first woman president and face the daunting task of breaking with the practices of corrupt governments with ties to drug trafficking — including that of her husband, Manuel Zelaya.
With 51 percent of votes counted at 6 a.m., Castro, of the leftist Libre party, led with 53 percent. Her strongest opponent, Nasry “Tito” Asfura, of the ruling National Party, trailed by 20 points. Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal trailed in third place with nine percent. Participation reached 68 percent, the highest since 1997.
“Ms. Castro has received a clear mandate: We want her to do things differently,” said Honduran political analyst Miguel Cálix.
International observers reported some irregularities including a late start to voting, delayed equipment deliveries, and voters turned away. Both Libre and the National Party declared themselves winners early in the day, causing concern among international observers, especially because the Honduran Electoral Council (CNE) reported a cyber-attack mid-afternoon against one of its servers. As of Monday morning, the National Party had not conceded, but Castro’s strong lead quashed fears of fraud.
Castro will be Honduras’ first leftist president after 12 years in which the ruling National Party co-opted democratic institutions and enabled drug trafficking to further penetrate the state. The wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was removed from office in a 2009 coup, she led a protest movement in the aftermath and ran for president in 2013 and 2017 with Libre, the party founded and led by Zelaya in 2011 following two years in exile.
“We turned 12 years of tears and pain into joy. The sacrifice of our martyrs was not in vain,” said Castro after 10 p.m., in reference to protestors killed by police following the 2017 elections. “We will begin an era of prosperity and solidarity through dialogue across society, without discrimination or sectarianism.”
”Today isn’t a victory for one political party, but rather for five parties and the Honduran people against those who have sold out our nation,” Salvador Nasralla told El Faro’s Carlos Barrera in a post-election interview. He added: “We can’t forget nor let go unpunished the robbery and murders, nor the martyrs that died in 2017 when we won the elections.
Castro's presidency, which she will assume on Jan. 27 if the results are certified by the electoral body, comes with the challenge of rooting out corruption, restoring democratic institutions, and pulling the country out of poverty as it still reels from two devastating hurricanes last year. She has promised more social programs, a partial decriminalization of abortion, opening relations with China, and an end to controversial libertarian econonomic zones known as ZEDEs.
Her win is “not a blank check,” said Cálix, and citizens will be closely scrutinizing her actions. “They’ll have to look in the mirror,” he said. “They criticized many actions as anti-democratic, and they have to be careful to not do the same.”
A last-minute alliance with another leading opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, who many Hondurans believe was the legitimate winner of the 2017 elections, injected spirit into her campaign, but also raised questions about how the opposition parties will share power.
“It will be a very complicated administration, not only because of the composition of the [governing] alliance but because it is facing a ravaged country,” said Miriam Miranda, director of the Fraternal Organization of Black Hondurans (OFRANEH). “If Xiomara or the opposition fail to generate some form of consensus across society, it will be impossible to move forward.”
For now, Juan Carlos Sikaffy, president of the largest business association in Honduras, congratulated Castro on her win: “From COHEP we reiterate our commitment to working jointly in the economic recovery that will permit the generation of dignified and inclusive work,” he tweeted Monday morning.
As Libre supporters celebrated at party headquarters Sunday night, one song excited them more than others. “Where is Juanchi going?” the singer asked, referring to President Juan Orlando Hernández by his nickname. “Juanchi is going to New York,” they chanted back.
The lyrics point out Hernández’s potential extradition to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges and that he could eventually face the same fate as his brother, who was convicted for drug trafficking in a New York court in 2019.
Hernández has been a polarizing figure in Honduras, and these elections were largely seen as a referendum on his unpopular presidency, although he was not on the ballot. Hondurans driving through Tegucigalpa Sunday night rolled down their windows to scream “Fuera JOH” or “Out Juan Orlando Hernández.”
Hernández’s reelection in 2017 was largely seen as fraudulent because of a constitutional ban that he sidestepped to remain in power. Hernández even trailed opponent Salvador Nasralla during the vote count until, after a day-long system outage, JOH pulled ahead. The post-electoral crisis in 2017 contributed to growing migration from Honduras, with many fleeing in migrant caravans.
Drug trafficking allegations against Hernández further strained the relationship with the U.S., particularly after Trump left office. (In the same case, a high level drug trafficker also testified that Manuel Zelaya took bribes from drug traffickers.) Biden administration officials visiting Honduras have chosen to meet with civil society, rather than with Hernández himself. Some members of Congress even began openly calling Honduras a narco-state.
With an opposition party in power, Hernández’s future is unclear. In recent weeks he has visited Nicaragua, where two Salvadoran presidents received asylum.
Even without JOH, the National Party remains a strong political force with a clientelist system that keeps a significant part of the electorate loyal. If Libre fails to secure a majority in Congress, it may be forced to make major governing concessions to the National Party.
Many voters Sunday said they hoped international observers, and particularly the U.S. Embassy, would ensure a fair election by rejecting results in the event of fraud. By Monday morning, the U.S. State Department had not yet recognized the official winner. International observers including the European Union and Organization of American States called for Hondurans to wait for the electoral council to declare the results.
The night before the elections, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele urged Hondurans not to vote for the National Party after right-wing Salvadoran party ARENA issued a statement supporting Asfura.
“I wasn’t going to say anything about the elections in Honduras, but I recommend to my Honduran siblings that they do exactly the OPPOSITE of what ARENA says,” he tweeted. “Nothing that ARENA recommends can be good. We proved it with three decades of looting and death in El Salvador.”
Mel Zelaya replied by thanking Bukele for his “courage.”
It’s unclear how Libre’s triumph will alter the region’s political map, where the closest left-wing models are the AMLO administration in Mexico and that of Ortega in Nicaragua. Salvadoran journalist Cecibel Romero recalled on Sunday night the close ties between Zelaya and Nicaragua and Venezuela. When he returned from exile in 2011, he arrived on a Venezuelan flight from Nicaragua, despite having spent the two years since the coup in the Dominican Republic. On board with him were Xiomara Castro and then-foreign minister Nicolás Maduro.
“She’s going to have to define a governing style,” said MIguel Cálix. “People hope that it is her own style, learning from the errors of the past.”
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