Honduras: What about those elections?
As the days peel away, it's time for a closer look at that festival of democracy, the Honduran elections, and what approach the popular movement will take to them.
The big spike in repression against anti-coup demonstrators of the last two weeks, combined with the clear signals by the U.S. government that it's content to sit by silently and pretend that the November 29 elections will wipe the slate clean, presents supporters of genuine democracy with the decision of whether to boycott the elections or participate in them.
The choice might seem obvious, but is complicated by several factors. One of the biggest is the presence on the ballot for the first time in many years of an independent candidate who is a long-standing leader of the popular movement, Carlos Reyes. In addition to succeeding in having his 70,000 signatures accepted by the election authorities, Reyes lucked into [Sp.] the 'end spot' on the ballot, the next best thing to being first. There is also another left candidate, Cesar Ham of the Unificacion Democratica (positioned next to Reyes on the ballot); the UD has gotten about 2% of the presidential vote in the last several elections.
Honduras holds elections for president, Congress, and mayor at the same time, every four years. Voters mark different ballots for president, legislature, and mayor
On the Congressional ballot,
The National and Liberal parties that have dominated Honduran politics for decades represent two wings of the economic elite who run the country [link added 3:05pm, 16 Aug]. This explains the backing of big funders of both parties for the coup, and their outrage at Zelaya's increasing closeness to the popular movement, particularly during the second half of his term. The movement for constitutional reform, the coup that was intended to stop it cold, and the resistance to the coup have begun to forge a possible realignment: an informal coalition of reformist and genuinely liberal Liberal Party members, UD partisans, supporters of the mildly social democratic indigenous party PINU, and the large group of poor and working-class Hondurans who don't trust the big parties and don't usually vote (turnout runs less than 50%), but who might be inspired to support an independent reform candidate.
Before the coup, organizations backing Reyes' candidacy were hoping to use the November elections to expand the voter pool and build pressure for constitutional change, since both major party candidates, Zelaya's 2005 National Party opponent Porfirio Lobo and his own former vice president, Elvin Santos, opposed the 'Cuarta Urna' campaign.
Now? Both major party candidates also supported the June 28 coup, whatever they may say now or in the future. Many governments in the hemisphere (but not yet, shamefully, our own) have explicitly refused to recognize the winner of elections held under the coup regime. Conditions for free and fair elections simply don't exist. Reyes himself has been arrested in anti-coup demonstrations, and on July 30, at the roadblock at Durazno in northern Tegucigalpa, was seriously injured when the police beat and charged after participants. After surgery ten days ago, his doctors advised him not to go in the street again for another month. Police have refused to guarantee his safety.
The National Party is the clear front-runner entering the campaign; Zelaya only narrowly beat Lobo in 2005, and the Liberal Party is severely split and discredited as a vehicle for change. As the probable winners, Lobo and his backers have the most to lose from the delegitimizing effects of an election boycott. This could explain the recent article in the National Party pro-coup newspaper El Heraldo that talks up a possible left-liberal voting coalition in November. More evidence that an election boycott is a highly unpleasant specter for the powers-that-be was the reaction of U.S. Ambassador Llorens when confronted with the idea by popular movement leaders he'd invited for a chat.
Stay-away boycotts can be effective for very large, well-established mass organizations that have already shown their strength at the polls. But an election boycott is a really tough way for a still-emerging, fragile coalition to start out. A movement that's building for long-term constitutional change, that depends on expanding the electorate, would benefit from giving supporters something to do at the polls that sends the message of rejecting the coup-supporting major parties and supporting change, while not actually legitimizing the election by casting a valid ballot. After all, they're going to want those new and infrequent voters voting for real in the not-too-distant future, and the experience of participating is invaluable preparation.
I'm not in on the discussion that is starting to happen among the organizations involved, and I'm sure there are many strategic and tactical considerations of which I have no inkling. But I do have one thought, a suggestion to offer for what it may be worth: A campaign to have voters circle the two candidates on right-hand end of the ballot. It wouldn't count as a vote for either one; the result would be a spoiled ballot. But it will be unmistakable, and recorded, in the voting results; each party is allowed to have representatives present when the ballots are opened and counted. The symbolism is also perfect: a circle that encompasses independents, the traditional left, and (depending on the size of the circle) a little slice of the Liberal Party.
Food for thought, offered in humility and the full awareness that my ignorance of the situation probably blinds me to the many problems with the idea.