Honduras: Early Moves in the Electoral Game
Honduras' current electoral law obliges all legally registered political parties to select their own officers and candidates for government office by internal election. At the time this law was passed, the idea was greeted as a necessary step to democratize the traditional parties, accustomed to choosing their authorities without the participation of their grassroots base.
As things have evolved, however, these elections are not democratic contests in which "fair play" reigns. The politicians who participate in them do not agree with the lofty Olympic slogan that the most important thing is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Given the high costs of the campaigns and the stakes in winning, neither the politicians who put themselves up as candidates nor those who bankroll them care much about how they play.
As a general rule, the objective of those who participate in Honduras' political life is access to the benefits and privileges of office. Politics is an industry that yields substantial dividends for the winners and their backers. Winning an internal election could be the business deal of their lives, the "takeoff" from economic stagnation or bankruptcy to the opulence obtained from selling their influence or making any number of deals under the state's table.
These material interests explain the intense competition that goes on within the parties to occupy either high-level internal posts or those fought over in the general elections. All politicians who consider themselves important vie for a public post, be it President of the Republic, mayor of some important city, a ministerial portfolio, or a legislative seat in the National Congress or Central American Parliament. Such aspirants often even threaten to abandon the party's political current with which they are identified unless guaranteed one of these plum positions.
A recent editorial by the Honduran daily El Heraldo put it this way: "Politicians, with honorable exceptions, give the impression of being without ideals, principles or programs favoring the least protected. They only appear to have personal ambitions and appetites pertaining to anti-nationalism. So strong and devastating is the advantage of the Sanchos over the Quixotes that the perquisites of office, which make up the apples of discord, are bought openly in public auction. Consequently, the goal of these citizens is not to get into public office to save the nation, but to get a piece of the budget so as to resolve their own personal problems. Because to live outside the budget is to live in error, as one professional politician said some years ago in a certain civic campaign. Eloquent proof that it is not a struggle of ideals but a contest of stomachs is the awesome facility and cheek with which some self-flatterers move from one current to another and even from one party to another when they don't get what they want."
For this reason, the parties' internal elections have not been characterized by any brilliant analysis of the national reality or by serious proposals for alleviating the tremendous poverty accosting the great majority of Honduras thanks to President Callejas' structural adjustment program.
This past month, a full year before the next national elections, the internal campaigns kicked into full gear in Honduras' four registered parties. To give our readers a flavor of how they work, we will update the contest for presidential candidate in the governing National Party (see envío September 1992, for the first installment), and describe the maneuverings of the major presidential aspirants in the other three parties. In the interest of brevity, we will limit ourselves to the frontrunners, mentioning the myriad lesser candidates only when they affect the major candidates' campaigns.
The National Party: Soured on internal elections The National Party, traditional bastion of Honduras' large landowners and the party with the longest top-down tradition, has had a hard time adapting to internal elections, and is now openly repudiating the idea. The election of its 1989 presidential candidate was purely symbolic. Rafael Leonardo Callejas, head of the current called the Rafael Callejas National Movement (MONARCA), offered the leaders of other currents a quota of government posts in exchange for their support. Lawyer Oswaldo Ramos Soto, for example, was promised the Supreme Court of Justice for himself and various ministerial and legislative posts for close supporters in his current, the Oswaldista Movement. To no one's surprise, the internal elections ratified these backroom deals.
National Party leaders believe that the bitter disputes that racked the rival Liberal Party during its internal campaign ruined its chances in the general elections. The bitter offenses exchanged by adherents of the various Liberal movements wore the party down and undermined its unity. Nor has the National Party forgotten that a backer of one its own candidates for mayor of Tegucigalpa actually shot a sympathizer of a competing candidate from another current the same campaign. All this has led National Party upper echelons to reject the internal election mechanism.
This view helps explain two phenomena occurring in the National Party as it prepares for the 1993 general elections. The first is the party's unusually large number of presidential aspirants, several of whom launched their candidacies soon after Callejas took office. Almost all of them were convinced that the best way to get positions in the state apparatus for themselves and their backers was to create their own movement and use it to broker with the candidates of the larger movements. Three of those early aspirants have now combined their candidacies, and another has already thrown his weight behind Oswaldo Ramos Soto, this year's front-runner.
The second phenomenon is that negotiations to repeat the backroom deals of 1989 got all twisted. They began in April, when an opinion poll led President Callejas and other MONARCA leaders to urge their presidential choice to back down in support of Alba Nora Gúnera de Melgar Castro, widow of General Melgar Castro. A second poll in July, however, convinced Callejas to take the candidacy away from her again. She is now back running for mayor of Tegucigalpa, but demanded and got a number of state posts for her closest followers. With that taken care of, Callejas negotiated an alliance with the Oswaldista Movement to back its candidate, Ramos Soto. Both movements believed that joining forces and distributing the state posts among the main leaders of their respective movements would win them the internal elections.
Nonetheless, two minority movement candidates refused to bow to this maneuver and demanded that true internal elections be held to redistribute state offices should the National Party win the general elections. Both believe that their respective movements are growing, as politicians disaffected with MONARCA and Oswaldism join their ranks.
To put a stop to this bothersome debate and avoid real internal elections, the party's Central Executive Committee decided to disqualify these minority movements. The committee had already been accused of favoring the majority movements by disqualifying two other minority movements after claiming it had found names of deceased individuals on their membership rolls. One candidate's response to this accusation exacerbated an internal conflict that has been shaking the National Party. "There are no dead people on our rolls, nor on our consciences," shot back Roberto Martínez Lozano. "Perhaps our rolls are painted with mud, or perhaps they're irrigated with sweat, because they were built basically of Honduras' poor. They don't want us to go to internal party elections because those poor will go to the polls to demand an explanation from the super-rich candidates who, because they have a lot of money, think themselves the owners of this great party."
Martínez's jibe about having no dead people on his conscience was aimed at candidate Ramos Soto. He has been associated with military officers involved in the disappearance over the last decade of people involved with the revolutionary movements of Nicaragua and El Salvador, and/or who opposed the US counterrevolutionary policy in Central America.
Yet another internal conflict dividing the National Party, and obliquely touched on by Martínez, is that Callejas and a small group of capitalists "technified" the party registers in the mid-80s, substituting the old-guard political leaders with a younger generation of up-and-coming businessmen and politicians. It has been said frequently that this group—known as the "Coyolito Club" after a beach resort frequented by President Callejas—makes all the decisions within the party. Martínez's accusations about the super-rich running the party reflect sizable discontent with the "Coyolito Club."
The fight by Martínez and the other independent minority candidate to redistribute the quotas of political power within the party through internal elections failed. The Central Executive Committee, which had already decided against such elections, got the best of the game when, on October 22, the National Elections Tribunal rejected both candidates' roll lists, alleging insufficient documentation to back them. The two candidates accused the committee of manipulating the documentation they had presented and of closing off all possibilities of meeting the requisites demanded by the electoral law and the law of political organizations.
Given all this, the National Party's internal elections, which will be held on November 29, will again be purely symbolic, only ratifying the roll lists headed by Ramos Soto. The Elections Tribunal decision left the party's minority candidates with two options: challenge the Tribunal's decision in the Supreme Court, although with no hope of success since this judicial body is controlled by Ramos Soto; or simply climb aboard the "locomotive" of Oswaldismo (Ramos Soto's electoral symbol is a blue locomotive). Martínez Lozano, who is the most arduous of the two independent candidates in demanding internal elections, has repeatedly said that he would prefer to remain "outside the party, with all my friends and followers, than lend myself to the officialist game." It remains to be seen whether excluding Martínez Lozano and the other minority candidate from the party's internal elections will negatively affect its possibilities in the 1993 presidential race.
Liberal Party: Between acceptance and doubt The Liberal Party, traditionally led by landowners' sons, modernizing capitalists and the urban petty bourgeoisie, accepted the idea of internal elections with less reticence than the National Party. But these elections have only served to revive the old rift between the two main wings of the party.
Modesto Rodas Alvarado’s followers formed one wing, the Rodista Movement, as he moved toward more conservative positions. The other, more reformist wing decided to wrap itself in the flag of Latin America's democratic left for a while, founding the People's Liberal Alliance (ALIPA) in the 1970s.
Rodista candidate Carlos Flores Facusse won his party's internal elections for the 1989 presidential candidacy, but was defeated by Callejas in the general elections. Some Liberals who analyzed that loss agree with the National Party's conclusions: "The internal currents can be read in an official Liberal Party document; its democratic and participatory goal, however, seriously erodes the institution, as manifested both in political activity and in the financial sphere. In addition, 'currents' in small countries like Honduras translate into an atomization within political organizations, leaving in their wake divisions and lack of party solidarity, and sometimes resulting in discord between leaders and the grassroots and a real drop in proselytism."
This evaluation, which illustrates the Liberal Party's own move from initial acceptance of internal elections to one of doubt and even rejection, had a certain impact on the behavior of leaders within their own movements. Some are authorizing back-room political deals similar to those being cut in the National Party.
Nonetheless, the desire to differentiate their party from the National Party on this issue has led some Liberal leaders to prepare to measure their movement's strength in the internal elections to be held on December 6. One young Liberal leader says in this regard: "Let's not follow the bad examples of the Nationalists. Let's not be victims of the illusion that they won in 1989 because they didn't hold internal elections and we did.
"They won because their organization was superior and because our negligence was inexcusable, to such a degree that it allowed them to take over the administration of the electoral bodies." These leaders are promoting public opinion polls to determine the popularity level of their candidates in key cities.
The Liberal Party's strongest movement today is headed by Carlos Roberto Reina and is made up mainly of old Rodista Movement leaders who want to turn their current jobs into lifetime posts.
According to a local editorial: "The Reinista Movement is hoarding the majority of the Liberal mummies, who, seeing themselves about to lose the nth opportunity to become legislators, don't mind swallowing the insults they launched against Reina some years ago, when they called him a communist."
The Reinista Movement currently controls the party's Central Executive Committee, and thus the "party seal." Reina's issue is the struggle against corruption, in which he presents himself as champion of the "moral revolution."
Next in importance is the Renovating Liberalism Movement (LIBRE), whose presidential choice is banker-businessman Jaime Rosenthal Oliva. Rosenthal wants to do for his party what Callejas and his "Coyolito Club" did for the National Party: technify it and put out to pasture the old guard that refuses to abandon the power positions they have held for over a decade. San Pedro Sula, where Rosenthal Oliva and some of his movement's most important cadres live, is the country's main industrial city and one of the most prosperous and progressive industrial centers in Central America. Rosenthal Oliva, however, has renounced the reformist ideas he proclaimed in the 1970s, and now presents himself as a moderate. The fact that he has become one of Honduras' richest men in the past few years may have something to do with this shift.
There are also two other lesser movements, each with its own presidential aspirant. There was some talk that the National Elections Tribunal would not register these minority candidates, also for failing to have their documentation up to date. It seems, however, that the Liberal representative on the tribunal was among those who opposed registering the two minority National Party candidates. In exchange for that "favor," the National Party representatives on the tribunal agreed to register any Liberal candidate who presented a slate. All four Liberals who aspire to be their party's presidential choice were thus duly registered as internal candidates on October 20.
PDCH and PINU: The minority parties The Christian Democratic Party of Honduras (PDCH) and the Party of Innovation and National Unity (PINU) are truly minority parties in the Honduran political spectrum. To give an idea of the four parties' relative weight in the 1989 presidential elections, the National Party pulled 52.3% of the vote, the Liberal Party 44.3%, PINU 1.9% and PDCH 1.4%.
The PDCH is currently divided into three internal currents, one of which through its weight to the presidential candidacy of Doctor Gregorio Reyes Mazzoni in a party meeting on July 25-26.
Now retired, Reyes Mazzoni spent the better part of his long years of medical practice in the United States, and for the past decade has been a kind of permanent presidential aspirant in the National Party.
His selection now as PDCH candidate has created no end of reactions both inside and outside the PDCH. One of the less passionate but nonetheless slightly malicious reactions appeared in a La Tribuna editorial: "The Christian Democrats, as if they didn't have a single prominent figure to put forward from their own militancy, gave the presidential candidacy to Gregorio Reyes Mazzoni, who only a few days earlier announced that he was a pre-candidate of the National Party." It was true. Posters with his photograph and the words "National Party of Honduras. Dr. Gregorio Reyes Mazzoni. Presidency 1994-1998. God, Homeland, Family" had begun to appear in major points of the capital.
A university journalist's commentary was slightly more caustic: "The Christian Democrats have eyed physician Gregorio Reyes Mazzoni's pocket. Since they aren't interested in the presidency of the Republic, given that they have enough with their positions in the National Registry and the Election Tribunal, they offered this position to anyone who wanted to pay for it. Apparently the retired surgeon doesn't want to die without the pleasure of having Hondurans, even if only four of them, vote for him for President of the Republic."
The reaction of opponents inside the PDCH was, as to be expected, much more passionate. Various distinguished party figures accused the officialist leadership of being "buffoons." They see Reyes Mazzoni's candidacy as "spurious" since he was not even asked to resign from the National Party before becoming a PDCH militant with full rights. Digging a bit deeper into the motivations behind conceding the candidacy to him, one party analyst held that "the Christian Democrats who lead the PDCH are collaborating with the Christian Democratic International's strategy, since compromising the Honduran party's existence in the next elections facilitates the possibility that the National Party will assume Christian Democratic ideology." To buttress his argument, this analyst pointed out that the National Party of Honduras has observer status in the CD International.
Preparations are now underway to hold internal elections in PINU. It was originally thought that the presidential candidacy would be offered to Enrique Aguilar Cerrato, historic if symbolic PINU candidate since the early 1980s. But as some observers predicted, he decided to decline the offer. This left three other candidates: PINU congressional legislator Carlos Sosa Coello, well-known labor lawyer Germán Leitzelar, and businessman Olban Valladares, Sosa's alternate in the National Congress.
In a congress of lawyers held last October 10 to select PINU's presidential candidate, 34 of the 59 delegates voted for Valladares and 25 for Leitzelar. Leitzelar's backers accused Valladares and his close collaborators of a mudslinging campaign against Leitzelar, including a charge that he intended to bring back Jorge Illescas Oliva, a Social Democratic politician whose first stint in PINU generated serious controversy. Illescas Oliva's efforts to turn PINU into a more combative party had rubbed this novel political organization's conservative and moderate cadres the wrong way. PINU's reformists, who supported Leitzelar, call Valladares an "anonymous politician with no national projection," known only inside the small party itself.
With Valladares' selection as presidential candidate, PINU will be unable to attract the votes of Honduras' independent moderate left, who always gave it their broad support in past elections.
Like the National Party, both the PDCH and PINU are obliged to have symbolic internal elections to ratify what the higher-ups have already decided. So goes Honduran electoral politics.