A contested inauguration The president of Honduras starts his second term under a cloud

Juan Orlando Hernández has little legitimacy, but few real foes

ANSELMO VILLARREAL was cycling past a protest in Sabá in northern Honduras on January 20th when he was shot, apparently by a member of the security forces. Mr Villarreal was the 32nd person to have died in protests against the re-election on November 26th of Juan Orlando Hernández as president of Honduras.

In the country’s last upheaval, a coup in 2009 against the then-president, Manuel Zelaya, 20 people died.

The post-election death toll may rise before Mr Hernández’s inauguration, scheduled for January 27th in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

But resistance is weaker than it looks. The opposition Alliance coalition had called for a nationwide strike, roadblocks, a shutdown of international airports and a vaguely defined boycott. So far little of that is happening. Demonstrations on January 20th in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the second-biggest city, drew fewer than 1,000 people each. That is a far cry from the tens of thousands who came out a week after the elections.

That is not because Mr Hernández has convinced Hondurans that he won fairly. His main rival, Salvador Nasralla, a sports broadcaster, led early in the vote count. Only after a glitch interrupted the publication of results by the electoral commission did Mr Hernández pull ahead, eventually winning by 1.5 percentage points. That looked fishy. Election monitors sent by the Organisation of American States (OAS) observed widespread “irregularities and deficiencies”.

Its secretary-general, Luis Almagro, proposed a fresh election. Many observers thought Mr Hernández’s candidacy was itself illegitimate. It happened only because in 2015 the biddable supreme court ruled invalid the term limit written into the constitution.

Outside Honduras, almost no one is listening. The European Union, which also sent monitors, described the election as “well organised”.

The Trump administration soon recognised Mr Hernández’s victory. The United States regards Mr Hernández, a tough-on-crime conservative, as an ally in its fight against drug-trafficking and migration from Central America. Some 500 American troops are stationed at the Soto Cano air base in central Honduras.

Most other countries in the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, also backed Mr Hernández.

They dislike in general the idea of outsiders influencing countries’ domestic politics. “No government…wants to have their election process challenged in the international arena,” says an official at a Honduran NGO.

That is especially true of the seven that are holding national elections in 2018, among them Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. Some Latin American leaders regard Mr Nasralla as a flaky leftist. The main exceptions to the regional rush to endorse Mr Hernández are the left-wing governments of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Within Honduras, the opposition is not trying very hard to overturn his victory. Though he has called on supporters to strike, Mr Nasralla has been presenting his Sunday-morning sports show on television.

He appeared to concede defeat after the United States backed Mr Hernández, though without accepting the election result as fair.

With Mr Nasralla’s retreat his most prominent ally, Mr Zelaya, has publicly resumed his earlier role as de facto leader of the opposition.

Tegucigalpa is buzzing with rumours that he has struck a private deal with Mr Hernández. Mr Zelaya is thought to be planning a presidential run in 2021. That cause might be better served by amassing influence and money with Mr Hernández’s help rather than by leading protests.

The president could give Mr Zelaya a say in picking appointees to such important jobs as chief prosecutor.

He could allow Mr Zelaya’s Libre party, a constituent of the Alliance, to gain control of congressional committees that allocate money. In return, Mr Zelaya would wind down the protests and let Mr Hernández govern.

Mr Almagro has been the loudest dissenter, for good reason. He led international condemnation of Venezuela’s drift towards dictatorship; to bless Mr Hernández’s dubious victory would open him to charges that he is applying a double standard. The president’s friends accuse Mr Almagro of seeking publicity to run for Uruguay’s presidency in 2019.

His obdurate stand may have made trouble for MACCIH, an anti-corruption agency in Honduras set up by the OAS. On January 18th congress passed a budget that, in effect, grants congressmen elected since 2005 three years of immunity from charges of stealing public money. It hobbles MACCIH, whose mandate expires in 2020.

On January 22nd Mr Almagro appeared to give up the fight, saying the OAS would work “with the elected authorities”. Perhaps he was being prudent. But his surrender leaves the country’s battered democracy almost defenceless.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “A tarnished presidency”

Get incisive analysis on the issues that matter.

Whether you read each issue cover to cover, listen to the audio edition, or scan the headlines on your phone, time with The Economist is always well spent.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close