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Honduran Elections Come at Critical Point in Political Standoff

BY newsdesk  November 23, 2009 at 4:30 PM EDT

Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos. Photo Credit: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Presidential elections this Sunday give Hondurans a chance to vote on their next leader, but may do little to clear up the political crisis that has gripped the small Central American country for five months.

Since mid-summer, two men have claimed the presidency: Manuel Zelaya, a charismatic populist who was toppled by the military on June 28, and interim leader Roberto Micheletti, a far more conservative veteran legislator who took the reins of the government the same day.

The international community, including the Obama administration, condemned Zelaya’s ouster as a coup and demanded his reinstatement.

Honduras has been wracked by uncertainty and chaos ever since. Though the situation has improved in the last two months, protests have continued almost daily, some of them violent, pitting demonstrators against security forces. The interim government has resorted now and again to hard-line policies such as curfews and media censorship.

Meanwhile, negotiators for Micheletti and Zelaya have been locked in internationally brokered talks.

Since neither is on the ballot, the job of healing the nation’s political wounds will fall to the next leader, who take will charge of the country on Jan. 27.

But first there must be a successful vote that is recognized by the international community.

Ian Kelly, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said last week the United States will wait to see how elections are conducted, before deciding whether or not to recognize them.

That’s a shift from the earlier U.S. stance. Over the summer, the State Department threatened to withhold all recognition of the Nov. 29 presidential elections unless Zelaya was reinstated to the presidency ahead of the vote.

But as the crisis dragged on, and senior U.S. diplomats became more energetically involved in trying to broker a deal, the Obama administration appeared to look to elections as a possible solution.

“My sense is they’re preparing to recognize the elections,” said Michael Shifter, vice-president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan policy analysis group in Washington, D.C. However, Shifter cautioned that if violence, or a boycott planned by Zelaya partisans, significantly depress turnout, “it’s going to be difficult for the U.S. to recognize the winner as the legitimate president.”

Even successful elections don’t necessarily guarantee a return to normalcy. A senior State Department official acknowledged there were other challenges facing Honduras beyond the weekend’s vote, such as broader national reconciliation and implementing an agreement, signed late last month, under which the 128-member Congress votes Dec. 2 to decide whether Zelaya will be reinstated to finish his term.

“Elections aren’t a silver bullet,” said the official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of ongoing discussions. “They’re just part of the solution for Honduras.”

But some experts still worry conditions simply are not present for free, fair and transparent elections.

“There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on,” said Vicki Gass, senior analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit research group, speaking via phone from Honduras.

Gass pointed to a rumored blacklist of Zelaya supporters being circulated, as well as emphatic statements from the military that they will protect the vote — statements that might be read as intimidating by Zelaya supporters.

Sarah Stephens, of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, who visited twice during the crisis, asked if Hondurans can truly “turn the page” via elections taking place in a climate characterized by violence, a muffled independent media, and limitations on political organizing.

On the other hand, in news that boded well for the vote’s success, Cesar Ham, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Union party, announced Monday he would participate as a candidate, according to the El Heraldo daily newspaper. Ham had earlier threatened to pull out, citing worries over whether there could be a free and fair ballot.

Zelaya, in refuge at the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras, has insistently called for his supporters to boycott the vote. Zelaya contends the elections can’t be legitimate if conducted under a “usurping government.”

Micheletti’s government has responded by asking Zelaya to call off his boycott.

“What we want are the peaceful elections we’ve all dreamed about,” said interim Deputy Foreign Minister Martha Lorena Alvarado, in a phone interview from the capital Tegucigalpa. “We would like Mr. Zelaya to stop asking for an insurrection, a lack of participation, because these will cloud the process.”

Micheletti has said he will step aside for a week a few days before the elections, ceding authority to his Cabinet, as a goodwill gesture.

The leading presidential contenders are Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the National Party, who has an edge in published polls, and Elvin Santos of the Liberal Party. These two parties have for over a century been the dominant actors in Honduran politics, and are generously funded by the clique of wealthy families that run the economy.

Lobo’s lead in the polls is partly attributed to his ability to portray the chaos of 2009 as the product of a messy internal squabble within the Liberal Party, of which both Zelaya and Micheletti are members.

And whether Zelaya can serve out his term continues to be an issue for Honduras’ neighbors. Brazil and Argentina have announced they will not recognize a president chosen without Zelaya back in the presidential palace.

Editor’s Note: Marcelo Ballve of New America Media will be covering the Nov. 29 elections from Honduras.