It was hoped that the Honduran elections on November 24 would offer a way out of the political and economic decline that followed the 2009 military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Although not impossible, that outcome seems increasingly remote. Over the past year, the post-coup government headed by President Porfirio Lobo has further diminished rule of law and tightened the noose on freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

It is by now well documented that the coup led by Roberto Micheletti of Zelaya’s Liberal Party, which was ostensibly to restore the rule of law, in fact overthrew it and ushered in a human rights disaster. After months of Micheletti ruling as interim president, Honduras held elections that almost all of the opposition candidates and international observers boycotted and which brought the current president, Lobo, a member of the National Party, to power.

Once in office, he rewarded coup loyalists with top ministries. They opened the door, in turn, for worsening violence and anarchy, including, as the United Nations, Amnesty International, the Organization of American States, and Human Rights Watch have documented, widespread threats and assassination attempts against journalists, lawyers, judges, the LGBT community, and members of the opposition. At the same time, they let the police run wild. It is well documented that the police are tied to organized crime, drug traffickers, gangs, and extortionists; a member of the government's own police cleanup commission recently estimated that only 30 percent of the police are "rescuable."     

If the ruling National Party’s candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, wins, the future looks even darker. Hernández was an enthusiastic supporter of the 2009 military coup and was elected president of congress in January 2010. In December of last year, he led a "technical coup," in which congress deposed four members of the Supreme Court and named four new loyalist judges the next day. In August, congress illegally named a new attorney general to a five-year term. After that, Hernández controlled all the key institutions of power, including the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, the police, and the military -- all of which gives the opposition and the public very little recourse

Hernández has built his campaign on promises to end the very security crisis that his government helped produce. To do that, he promises to place "a soldier on every corner." In fact, he has already started to do so. In August, Hernández pushed through congress the creation of a new 5,000-strong unit, which is under control of the military and has domestic policing functions. These soldiers, often with only two or three months' training and wearing black face masks, are already taking over neighborhoods and conducting counter-intelligence work. They have also been charged with policing demonstrations. Leaving aside that their presence is a violation of the Honduran constitution, which allows the military to take on police functions only in emergencies, the soldiers are also dangerous. On July 15, for example, the Engineers' Battalion shot and killed a peaceful indigenous activist, Tomás García, at a dam protest.

Hernández would offer a continuation of the status quo -- and even worse. As unappealing as that might be, he does have a slim chance of winning. In the Honduran electoral system, the person with the most votes in the first round wins, with or without a majority. In some very late polls -- by law, polling stopped a month before the elections -- Hernández had shot to the top, leading his closest competitor by three percent. In part because he had been down by as much as 20 percent for most of the year, and in part because of charges that the polling firm was paid off by the Honduran congress, many consider the poll to be fraudulent. With Hernández’s party and the military in control of the electoral machinery, the potential for fraud during the actual election is vast as well. To complicate matters, as many as 30 percent of the voters consistently pick "none of the above" or no preference when asked whom they will vote for, making any prediction difficult.

In this context, the other candidates face formidable obstacles. The other traditional party, the Liberal Party, has splintered between those who remain loyal to Zelaya and those who led the coup, including Mauricio Villeda, the presidential candidate who leads a tattered vestige of his party. Meanwhile, candidates from an array of smaller parties, some predating the coup and some more recent, claim their own chunks of votes. Among these, the most notable is Salvador Nasralla, an ultraconservative sportscaster with no political experience who is running on an anticorruption platform. In many of the past year's polls, he placed second. His popularity has plummeted more recently, though, and since he lacks a get-out-the-vote machine, he is not thought to be capable of winning.

Hernández’ real competition is Xiomara Castro Zelaya, the ex-president's wife, who has been in first place for most of the past year and was neck-and-neck with Hernández in the last polls. She heads LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), a broad-based opposition party comprising parts of the Liberal Party and the labor, women's, campesino, indigenous, Afro-indigenous, and LGBT movements. Labeled by some as a leftist, she is in fact more of a centrist, who speaks of supporting small businesses, taking on drug trafficking, and seeking an aid arrangement with the IMF. She is the only candidate who might have a broad enough base of support -- including many in the business community -- and enough political will to restore the rule of law, clean up the police, and rebuild the economy.

Her detractors claim, with no credible evidence, that her husband, Manuel, was seeking a second term at the time of the coup, and they question her independence from him should she win. During the two years he was out of the country, though, she emerged as a political actor and thinker in her own right, and although theirs is a close partnership, it is not unlike other pairs in which the wife has succeeded the husband in office. Castro represents a new, post-coup realignment of Honduran politics.

For its part, the U.S. State Department indicates that it continues to support the post-coup regime and Hernández, who, according to a 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks, “has consistently supported U.S. interests.” The United States has never denounced his overthrow of the Supreme Court, the stacking of the attorney general's office, or the militarization of policing. It continues to pour tens of millions of dollars into both the police and the military, and, more broadly, legitimates the current government by calling it a partner in addressing the security crisis and fighting the drug war.

In remarks that many took as patronizing, U.S. ambassador Lisa Kubiske recently encouraged Honduran voters to turn out to polls en masse and promised that, thanks in part to U.S.-sponsored oversight, this will be "the cleanest election in Honduran history." Observers are pouring in from all over the world. But many of the key bodies have been accused of legitimating bogus elections in Honduras before. The U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, for example, helped certify the 2009 elections, when all other international observers except the International Republican Institute pulled out in because of the repressive conditions under which they were being conducted. The U.S. State Department, which has now set itself as the guarantor of the current elections, recognized Lobo's election in 2009 before the polls had even closed. It was clear that he was going to win, but the move nevertheless sent a disturbing message about the State Department's desire to swiftly legitimate the election with or without fraud. In addition, the Organization of American States, which also plans to watch the election, certified the 2012 primaries despite widespread evidence of fraud.

If the election were totally free and fair, LIBRE might have a chance. But, in a spectacular run of pre-election violence, at least 16 of its candidates and activists have already been assassinated, more from all the other parties combined, including the traditional parties. Given the ruling party's corruption and the long history of alleged vote miscounting by both traditional parties, it seems likely that, on election day, fraud will be considerable. And even if LIBRE comes out ahead, Hernández and his allies would still control the Supreme Court and the prosecutors. The stakes are high: if Hernández wins, repression and corruption would continue unchecked. The ruling elite would now have the legitimation of an election, assuming that observers certified it.

In any scenario, the ultimate outcome will depend in part on independent actors, most importantly the other nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Rather than leaping in to certify any electoral outcome, the State Department should think about the message it wants to send to the rest of the hemisphere. If Castro wins, it should immediately signal its willingness to work together in a respectful manner. Should Hernandez claw his way to victory -- including if there is convincing evidence that he used fraud to do so -- it should heed concerns raised by over 21 senators and 94 members of the House regarding human rights abuses by state security forces and question police and military aid to Honduras. In other words, given a second chance after the debacle of 2009, it should make clear what its deepest values are.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DANA FRANK is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • More By Dana Frank