The Honduran Candidate
Presidential re-election is prohibited by the Honduran Constitution. In fact, the document goes so far as to require the immediate termination of a sitting president who dares to advocate a change to the ban. Just eight years ago, former president Manuel Zelaya was ousted after planning to hold a nonbinding referendum on whether to change that article of the Constitution. But that’s not stopping President Juan Orlando Hernández from trying.
Mr. Hernández’s campaign for re-election began years ago — even before he was president — when he and his acolytes stacked the Honduras Supreme Court with supporters, with the ultimate goal of holding onto power beyond one term.
In 2015, the Supreme Court backed Mr. Hernández’s effort, ruling that term limits violate an individual’s right to run for office. Now Mr. Hernández is using that ruling to justify his re-election campaign. Hondurans go to the polls on Nov. 26.
While serving as president of the Honduran Congress in 2012, Mr. Hernández led the effort to illegally fire four members of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night. The next day, they were replaced by Hernández loyalists, who later issued the ruling now used to legitimize his run.
The people of Honduras have protested the Supreme Court decision to no avail. Large groups of civil society have asked the electoral authority to nullify the president’s candidacy, citing the constitutional violation. Their requests have also been ignored by officials loyal to the president.
In the face of protests, Mr. Hernández’s government has been tightening its already firm grip on society. International observers and human rights defenders have been threatened and kicked out of the country. Student demonstrations have been violently broken up by the police. The government has passed laws that could restrict the right to protest.
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Despite that, a powerful opposition is building. The opposition is based in grass-roots social movements and in two new political parties founded in 2012, the center-left Libre (Libertad y Refundación) Party and the right-wing, anticorruption party known as PAC (Partido Anticorrupción). Those two parties have united for the election, forming the Opposition Alliance under the candidacy of Salvador Nasralla of the PAC.
It’s possible that Mr. Nasralla would win a free and fair election, as there is plenty of opposition to Mr. Hernández’s re-election — nearly two-thirds of Hondurans oppose re-election. But Mr. Hernández and his allies control the much-protested ballot-counting process, the election oversight commission, the army — which under Honduran law moves the ballots — and all appeals processes. Given his total control over the election process, we can’t expect him and his corrupt manipulators to allow a free and fair election to decide their fate.
The Honduran government under Mr. Hernández is not new to the business of silencing dissenters. In October, the International Advisory Group of Experts, or Gaipe for its initials in Spanish, published a detailed report on the death of a friend of mine from Honduras, Berta Cáceres. She was murdered because of her efforts as an environmental and indigenous-rights activist. The Gaipe report outlines how the government has been deliberately slow to bring the masterminds behind her killing to justice. They are powerful, well-connected men and women who live above the law under the Hernández government. Ms. Cáceres’s case is emblematic of the impunity and repression that exist in Honduras today, but it is just one of many.
With violence, corruption and repression of civil society as the backdrop, the Honduran people will head to the polls. They will be handed a ballot that illegally lists Mr. Hernández as a candidate, and they are likely to face coercion, intimidation and bribes to sway their vote in favor of the sitting president.
Still, the Honduran people remain engaged. Vibrant political campaigns are being waged. Many brave voters will head to the polls and do everything in their power to make their voices heard. I applaud and admire them.
The international community owes it to these citizens to be prudent, skeptical and well-informed when the election results come in. For far too long, the United States has been quick to support Mr. Hernández blindly, seeing him as a useful partner. He relies on international support, and any indication from the United States and our allies that we might revoke our support could go a long way toward making him rethink his next move.
In plain view of the international community and in blatant defiance of his own government’s founding documents, Mr. Hernández is inching closer and closer to authoritarian rule and all-out dictatorship. If he succeeds in re-electing himself, the United States should make it clear that we see his power grab for what it is. We should withdraw our unconditional support, roll back the millions of dollars we send Honduras in security aid every year and make it clear that we do not tolerate autocratic behavior by our allies.