Less than a week out from general elections in Honduras to be held on November 28, 2021—where races for the presidency, national congress, and municipal government will come to a close—grave concerns remain about the electoral process and the violence that may unfold in its aftermath. With some polls suggesting that the governing National Party is no longer in the lead for the presidency, memories of the looming inconsistencies and violence from the 2017 elections, and the failure to implement substantial electoral reform, eyes are on Honduras to determine what the country will make of this electoral process and what the next four years will hold.
There is widespread concern that November’s elections will be tainted by electoral inconsistencies and violence, following the similarly dire elections of 2017, which the OAS mission determined did not produce clear results, but was nevertheless quickly recognized by the Trump administration. With no definitive satisfaction on the part of independent international electoral observers, and a dismissal of the OAS call for a new election, the declaration of Juan Orlando Hernadez as winner—after seeking an unprecedented second term following a Supreme Court ruling that lifted the one-term limit rule—escalated the political crisis and marked new levels of lack of credibility in the country’s democracy. A similar attempt to pursue re-election by former President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales led to his ousting in the 2009 coup, which jeopardized democracy in Honduras and resulted in a dramatic expansion of organized crime in the country.
After the 2017 elections, Honduran politicians promised electoral reforms that would support safe and transparent elections in an effort to appease the concerns of the Honduran public and the international community. In 2019, the electoral authorities underwent changes, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE) was replaced with the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) and the Tribunal of Electoral Justice (Tribunal de Justicia Electoral, TJE)—a change that separated electoral justice duties from administrative ones. However, the National Congress did not approve a procedural electoral law guiding the jurisdiction of the TJE, diminishing its power to impart justice. In May 2021, a new electoral law included changes to the makeup of the voting tables (which will now have five members: the three majority parties have guaranteed seats and the others rotating seats), a transmission of preliminary results, and fingerprint software. Although this is a welcome shift, critics highlight that several meaningful reforms were not included in the changes, including citizen participation in the voting tables and considerations of run-off elections, as was proposed by civil society organizations. Further, budget shortfalls and delays make it unclear whether the technology for fingerprint identification when Hondurans go to vote and for the transmission of preliminary results will be available and fully functional in time, even if they are required by the law.
Increased political violence has plagued the current election cycle. As of November 13, the National Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) had registered more than than 60 cases of political violence. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras expressed concern with the killings of political candidates, their families, and activists. This includes an attack on Congresswoman Olivia Marcela Zúniga Cáceres, member of the Liberty and Refoundation Party or LIBRE Party and daughter of assassinated environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres. In comparison, there were 50 cases of pre and post-electoral violence in 2017.
The questioned results of the November 2017 elections sparked protests that were met with excessive force by the military police, resulting in the killing of dozens of civilians and the arbitrary detention of some 1351 people. Any protests in 2021 may be met with a similar level of violence and resistance, a concern that is exacerbated by an October 2021 law that could limit the right to protest if these are determined to be a conduct of usurpation that restricts others from carrying out activities in public spaces.
There are currently risks associated with the voting process itself. Hondurans will need a new identification document which will be the only acceptable identification for official matters, including voting. Almost 1 million documents remained unissued as of October 2021, and strikes from national registry employees further delayed the process. By mid-November at least 300,000 Hondurans did not have new identification cards. The unrealistic timeline for the issuance of new identification cards will not only result in many Hondurans not being able to vote, but points to the possibility that the decision to make this switch during an election year and to solely allow the use of new identification cards in order to vote may have been to intentionally exclude voters.
The National Anti-Corruption Council also raised concerns that the companies hired by the CNE to transmit and certify the upcoming November elections have a precedent of irregularities. Further, for the elections, the members of the voting boards, which help citizens exercise their voting rights, will receive blank credential forms. This decision by the CNE was made purportedly in an effort to remain flexible in light of health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, in practice, political parties will give them out to their delegates to fill in, allowing them to make changes in representation in case someone gets sick before election day and increasing the potential for fraud to occur.
The presidential candidates themselves add even more uncertainty to the November 28 elections. Nasry “Tito” Asfura, mayor of Tegucigalpa and National Party candidate, is under investigation for embezzlement of city funds. Yani Rosenthal, a businessman, former government minister, and the opposition Liberal Party candidate, is running after having served a three-year sentence in the United States for money laundering for a drug trafficking organization. There are no direct corruption allegations against Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the opposition LIBRE Party candidate, but she may be impacted by accusations of corruption of her husband, former president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, during his term. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya’s candidacy was strengthened after Salvador Nasralla, the Savior of Honduras Party candidate, left the race and endorsed her on October 13.
In addition to an electoral process that will likely be contested, or at the very least seen as lacking legitimacy both due to the process itself and the options for candidates, the declared presidential winner will face serious challenges during their term, which begins on January 27, 2022. Honduras struggles with some of the highest levels of poverty and inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean. The COVID-19 pandemic alone is expected to cause up to a 12 percent decrease in the country’s GDP and an increase in poverty, which will expand from 60 to 70 percent. Hurricanes Eta and Iota exacerbated an already precarious economic environment, and climate change will continue triggering devastating natural disasters and food insecurity. Honduras also had the highest rate of homicides in Central America in 2020, perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations, drug trafficking groups, gangs, and corrupt state actors. Gangs like Barrio 18 and MS13 target youth confronting stark economic conditions and a lack of opportunity, and contest state power by taking control of neighborhoods and territories. Women and girls, human rights defenders, Garifuna and other Afro-descendant and Indigenous groups, environmental activists, journalists, the LGBTI+ community, and people with disabilities are among the groups that bear the brunt of violence and insecurity—while impunity remains the norm.
Weak judicial and security institutions fail to respond to these challenges effectively, as corruption permeates through the country’s systems. The 2009 coup that ousted former President Zelaya allowed organized criminal networks to leverage the political turmoil and further penetrate government institutions at all levels. Embezzlement is rampant; according to a study by the Social Forum of External Debt and Development of Honduras (FOSDEH) ) from 2014-2018 the country lost 10-12.5 percent of its GDP to corrupt practices. Even current President Juan Orlando Hernandez is listed as a co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case against Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez in the United States. Additionally, in March 2021, his brother Tony Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by the U.S. Department of Justice for drug trafficking crimes—a case in which it is also mentioned that according to a hearing testimony, Juan Orlando had requested $1.6 million in money from the sale of drugs to support his campaign.
While progress had been made in the fight against corruption and impunity, particularly through the OAS-backed Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), the expiration of the mission’s mandate in January 2020 despite widespread pushback was the first of several deliberate setbacks to efforts to combat corruption in Honduras. Following the expiration of the MACCIH’s mandate, other major blowbacks to anti corruption efforts include the passage of a controversial penal code that hampers corruption investigations and reduces sentences for corruption-related crimes, limited resources for anti-corruption prosecutors, severe mishandling of funds meant for the country’s COVID-19 response, among several others.
These conditions are amongst the factors that prompt Hondurans to flee the country in search of safety and opportunity. Migrant apprehension data from Mexico and the United States suggests that since 2018, more Hondurans than Guatemalans and Salvadorians, relative to their respective populations, have migrated north.
There is much to be concerned about in the lead up to the Honduran elections, including qualms laid out in a letter sent by Members of the U.S. Congress to Secretary Blinken on November 15. As the country prepares for the elections, U.S. policymakers and others in the international community should consider the following actions: