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What’s Next for Zelaya’s Supporters in Honduras?

New America Media, News Analysis, Marcelo Ballvé Posted: Dec 07, 2009

Editor’s Note: The election in Honduras might have settled who becomes president in January. But the real issue is what will happen to the thousands who were galvanized into politics by the coup. They had no real candidate in the election. Marcelo Ballvé reported on the Nov. 29 elections in Honduras and Organization of American States-brokered negotiations in October.

What happens when ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya, like a humiliated political patriarch in a Gabriel García Márquez novel, exits stage-left?

That’s the question being asked around the hemisphere after the latest developments in the Honduras crisis.

Last week, the 128-member Honduran Congress overwhelmingly voted against reinstating ousted Zelaya to the presidency. The vote was taken as part of a U.S.-brokered deal aimed at defusing tensions and putting Honduras on the road to long-term stability.

Three days earlier, Hondurans had gone to the polls and elected a new president, conservative rancher Porfirio Lobo, who is due to be inaugurated Jan. 27.

The U.S. State Department joined Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica in recognizing the elections, arguing the vote was a first step—another being a unity government and a truth commission—in helping Honduras put its house back in order ahead of Lobo’s inauguration.

Meanwhile, the interim Honduran president, the tough-as-nails veteran legislator Roberto Micheletti, who moved into the Casa Presidencial after Zelaya was overthrown, continues leading the interim government.

It may appear all is settled, and Honduras will muddle along until Lobo wipes the slate clean and begins addressing the impoverished country’s huge economic challenges, which were exacerbated by the paralyzing political crisis. Zelaya’s fate seems to be the only loose end needing attending to. For now he’s still hidden away in the Brazilian Embassy, which he can’t leave for fear of arrest.

But it’s not clear moving on will be that easy.

Not after a crisis that has dragged on for over five months, shaken the local political establishment to its foundations, soured Honduras’s relationship with its neighbors, and contaminated every governmental institution.

Some countries, including Brazil and Argentina, are refusing to recognize the elections. These countries, many of them fragile Latin American democracies, have angrily said they will not recognize a ballot that served to legitimize a coup.

And there were some flaws in the elections. The Nov. 29 ballot, which had been scheduled long before the crisis began, and which the United States and the interim government touted as vital to shoring up Honduran democracy, was not as successful as it first appeared.

On election night, electoral authorities proudly announced an extraordinarily high turnout. They said over 61 percent of eligible Hondurans cast ballots, and consequently local media described the elections an unqualified success (in comparison, in 2005, when Zelaya won the presidency, turnout was 55 percent).

The turnout was closely watched because Zelaya had asked his supporters to boycott the vote, as a protest against his overthrow and the failed negotiations to reinstate him before elections took place.

On the night of the ballot, elections authorities rented a hotel conference room in downtown Tegucigalpa to announce results to hundreds of foreign observers and reporters. An hour-and-a-half before midnight, they climbed onto an elaborate Mayan temple stage set, and enthusiastically announced Lobo’s victory, and the outsized turnout.

One elections official said the world’s governments now had a “moral obligation” to recognize the ballot.

But Zelaya supporters cried foul. Zelaya himself said the turnout was grossly inflated and called the elections a “farce.”

At least in terms of turnout, it does appear the elections authorities made an error, whether or not it was intentional. An independent U.S.-funded elections monitoring group, Hagamos Democracia, which did its own count of ballots at a large sample of the polling sites (about 1,000 out of roughly 15,000 tables), put turnout much lower, at just below 50 percent.

The electoral authorities initially stood by their numbers, but eventually revised the turnout figures downward to a number in line with the Hagamos Democracia estimate: 49 percent, according to Agence France-Presse.

The dispute over the turnout doesn’t on its own mean the elections were illegitimate. Lobo’s victory is uncontested, and his National Party also took control of the Congress. It seems Lobo was successful in his efforts to paint the Honduran crisis as the product of an internal squabble within the Liberal Party, of which Zelaya and Micheletti are both members.

And at just under 50 percent, turnout was still sufficient for the interim government to claim credible elections.

It is also possible the low turnout wasn’t attributable to Zelaya’s calls for a boycott. It may have been another factor that kept people away from the polls, such as overall frustration with politics generally after months of chaos.

Either way, the lackluster turnout points to the persistence in Honduras of a lack of faith in political institutions and democracy itself.

This distrust is sure to remain particularly strong among Zelaya supporters who were heartened by the ousted leader’s efforts to involve the country’s marginalized poor majority in politics, and his moves to tackle economic inequality (one of Zelaya’s most controversial measures was a hefty hike in the minimum wage early in 2009).

It wasn’t just the president’s removal that polarized the country. Zelaya himself laid the foundations for divisiveness with his aggressive administration. Zelaya’s critics—and there are many in deeply conservative Honduras— saw his increasingly populist style as a dangerous repeat of Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in Venezuela, and applauded his ouster.

Zelaya’s enemies can now channel their political energy into the traditional Liberal and National parties, which are sure to be careful not to embark on any political adventures after seeing what happened to Zelaya.

What’s unclear is how Zelaya’s supporters will channel their activism now that it appears unlikely he’ll ever lead again. If Honduras is to remain stable, Zelaya partisans will need to find a constructive outlet for their reformist, left-leaning platform.

Juan Barahona, a union leader who participated in the unsuccessful Organization of American States-brokered talks to reinstate Zelaya, has said it’s time to look ahead to the 2014 elections. From now on, he said, Hondurans who stood with Zelaya should use the ballot box and new candidates to push for change.

One small, left-leaning party, the Unión Democratica (UD), already is closely identified with Zelaya, and may become the standard-bearer for his platform, which included demands for a revamp of the country’s 1982 Constitution.

But the UD angered Zelaya’s most hard-core supporters when party leader César Ham refused to participate in the elections boycott.

One independent presidential candidate, Carlos H. Reyes, did boycott the vote, and he’s currently the darling of the so-called “resistencia,” the loosely organized coalition of unions, students, and farm workers who were Zelaya’s main pillars of support.

But Reyes’s platform, which includes hopes for a Central American political union, is too utopian to attract wide support. For now it seems Zelaya, the toppled maverick, still casts too large a shadow for a real successor to step out from under it.

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