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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 199 | Febrero 1998



Democratic Transition: The Interminable History

New elections, new president. The oppositions fears that Liberal Carlos Flores Facusse will be authoritarian and will use an exclusive, presidentialist style. It predicts that 1998 will be a year of economic shock, with more taxes for the people and continued submission to the orders of the international organisms.

Manuel Torres Calderón

Hondurans held general elections for the sixth consecutive time in 17 years on November 30, 1997, electing Liberal Carlos Flores Facussé as their new President and ratifying two political features of this Central American country. The first: consolidation of the electoral democracy initiated in the fire of Central America's conflicts in the 1980s. The second: the marked conservative tendency of voters, 95% of whom again opted for the traditional parties that have dominated Honduras' political scene for a century.

According to the final calculations of the National Elections Tribunal, released 29 days after the vote, 1,995,633 of the 2,886,229 eligible voters (69%) went to the polls. Of those, 1,039,567 voted for the Liberal candidate.

In addition to President of the Republic, Hondurans elected three Designates (Vice Presidents), 128 National Congress representatives, 20 Central American Parliament representatives and the governments of nearly 300 municipalities. They chose from nominees of five political parties, including the newest, the left-center Democratic Unification (UD).

Confirming tendencies already seen in polls, there were no great surprises. President- elect Carlos Flores Facussé, 47-year-old engineer and owner of an influential newspaper, was the front runner in those polls. The nearly two decades of active political career he has chalked up include two years as Minister of the Presidency (1982-84) during the Liberal government of Roberto Suazo Córdoba. That was the era in which civilian power was subordinated to military power and the National Security Doctrine prevailed over the Constitution and other laws. It was characterized by the presence of Nicaraguan contras and US troops in Honduran territory and by a domestic "dirty war" which left 187 people disappeared and more than 100 assassinated for political reasons.

Liberals reject any suggestion that Flores was directly implicated in the human rights abuses of those times. In an electoral campaign plagued by low blows, the opposition's propaganda against the Liberal candidate was curiously silent on this aspect of his background. Some interpreted this as proof of "political maturity" and others as a clear sign of Liberal control over the majority of the media.

Flores Facussé's presidential aspirations began in 1985. In that year it looked as though he would be as the candidate for his party's officialist sector, but a political maneuver benched him. He ran for the first time as presidential candidate in 1989, but lost to Nationalist candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas. That experience taught him a painful but important lesson which helped him reap dividends eight years later.

100 Years of Control

Liberals and Nationalists have monopolized power in Honduras for the past century, including periods when they were under the shadow of de facto military governments. The ideological differences between the two parties are more theoretical than practical, meaning that there is not really a bipartisan system in Honduras, but rather a conservative monopartisan one.

This bipartisan system in appearance only is seen frequently in Latin America, but the involution of Honduras' variant is unique. Both parties are still the "originals." They have demonstrated an impressive capacity to absorb new generations of politicians, including erstwhile "leftists" who called both parties "prehistoric" back when they were student or popular leaders. The two parties are the cornerstone of a traditional political model that has figured out numerous ways to recycle itself, including permitting new parties to emerge, then rapidly assimilating them into the system.

Despite a century of erosion, Liberals and Nationalists do not, for the moment, see any threat to their political monopoly. In the electoral races between the two parties since the return of constitutional order in 1980, the margin of difference between them has been the following:

The Liberal Party, whose ideas have ranged between neoliberalism and "social liberalism," has maintained almost absolute hegemony. During the 1980s, it obtained three consecutive victories, and in the 1990s has won two, always by a comfortable margin. Voters have trusted Liberals to run the nation during two key periods: the beginning of the transfer of power from military to civilian hands in 1980 and now the close of the century and opening of a new millennium. Flores Facussé's term ends in 2002.

Minority Parties Without Results

Voter loyalty to these two parties has been so unwavering that not even disaffection has ever endangered their electoral control. Citizen dissatisfaction does not translate into more votes for minority parties but into high abstention. In the 1980s the Christian Democrats and the Innovation and Unity Party together did not pull even 4% of the presidential votes. Adding the Democratic Unification votes in the November 1997 elections, they won just over 4%, climbing to almost 9% in the congressional elections and 6.6% in the mayoral elections. If even the highest proportion of this slow growth were mechanically maintained, it would take at least eight elections (32 years) for an alliance of these three parties to have any real opportunity to lead the country.

Electoral support for Liberals and Nationalists is so total that since 1981 the winning party "takes all" with no counterweight system in the exercise of power. With the broad advantage in its favor in the most recent elections, the Liberal Party will have total control over the executive, legislative and judicial powers for the next four years.

Of the 128 representatives who make up the National Congress, the Liberals won 67 seats, 4 less than in 1993, but enough to shut out the 55 Nationalist representatives, 3 from the Innovation and Unity Party, 2 from Christian Democracy and the single Democratic Unification representative who won a seat any time it chooses.

Congress has not only legislative power. The Constitution gives it broad prerogatives, among them naming Supreme Court justices and the heads of the state's auditing entities.

The Case of La Paz

Liberals won 180 municipalities and the National Party won 112. Democratic Unification won 1 in La Paz, a victory that marks an interesting historical precedent since no minority party has ever before won a mayorship. Without wanting to minimize the UD's triumph, it must be mentioned that the victorious mayor had won the Liberal Party's internal primaries for that same post, but a political maneuver by his own party members took that right away from him. Struck to the heart, he became a dissident and won a space on the Democratic Unification ticket, where his experience in traditional electoral maneuvers helped him win the surprising victory over the Liberal who had replaced him.

Since the recently created Central American Parliament is being highly questioned, the election of representatives to it is of marginal importance to anybody but the winners, who will enjoy a hefty salary. Of the 20 seats, 9 went to the Liberals, 8 to the Nationalists and 1 each to Innovation and Unity, the Christian Democrats and the UD.

Flores Strong, Reina Weak

Carlos Flores Facussé is seen as a "strong President," in contrast to the weak outgoing one, Carlos Roberto Reina. Even though Reina won by a broad margin in 1993, he was always a minor leader within his country. During his four years as President this was reflected in the friction and mistrust between him and then legislative head Flores Facussé.

Flores maintained his distance from Reina from the beginning of his administration, and at times their differences acquired confrontational airs, whether apparent or real. Three basic reasons underlay the tiffs between the two men, which were presented to public opinion as proof of the independence of the two branches. The first is the personalist "boss" nature of Honduran politics, known in Latin America as caudillismo. Flores Facussé is the highest leader of the majority current in the Liberal Party, while Reina led a minority current. Secondly, the two have different public administration criteria. And third, of course, was Flores Facussé's manifest interest in shaping his legislative tasks into the platform for his presidential candidacy.

From the National Congress, which he made into a sort of bunker, Flores put together an electoral network that allowed him to unify his party, dominate the opposition legislators—especially in the National Party—and project a reformist image by pushing through a series of important laws including the Children and Adolescents Code, the Family Code, the Penal Code and the Code against Domestic Violence. These and other initiatives formed part of a broad package of projects to modernize the state.

The "New Agenda"

Flores Facussé's electoral platform—known as "the new agenda"—was not heavy on content. The following general lines stood out:
* Promote gender equality.

* Support private initiative through a special fund of guarantees and credits to finance small enterprise projects.

* Stimulate competition and create a climate conducive to investment and production so that economic growth can translate into national and family well-being.

* Promote the passage of a Concessions Law for the development of business projects in infrastructure, airports, highways, tourism, etc.

* Increase the efficiency of the health institutions.

* Guarantee the social order and effective enjoyment of fundamental rights with the Public Security Plan.

* Promote education as a fundamental premise for the country's development.

* Combat speculation and high prices.

* Fight corruption and be hard on crime with correct and prompt administration of justice.

1998: Economic Shock

Outside of electoral promises, it is clear that the real "agenda," not even necessarily hidden, offers no substantial economic changes to the current structural adjustment model; rather it will be intensified. Flores Facussé's closest team never objected to the content of the neoliberal policy Reina promoted, but to inefficiency in implementing it.

This year is expected to be one of "economic shock," with a drastic increase in general sales taxes, speedy privatization of the last enterprises still in public hands, an open policy for private, especially foreign, investment and submission to accords negotiated with the international lending agencies.

An Interamerican Development Bank document assessing Honduras' economic situation and perspectives notes that "it is important for the new government to give clear signs from the outset that it will offer transparent rules of the game and a stable macroeconomic environment." The "clear signs" contemplate, for starters, the application of a new Tax Code and an adjustment in the sales tax, which will increase from the current 7% to 10% or even 15%.

The macroeconomic legacy that Reina bequeathed to Flores is qualified as "better" than Reina received from Callejas in 1993, but not what is desired in social or even financial terms. Every day the Honduran population faces more and more hardships trying to survive, and many ask what the sense of the democracy being built is if the democratic promises are limited to an institutional plane and do not respond to people's economic or social needs.

Ex-President Reina did not provide the "human face" he promised. In reality his administration concentrated on paying the onerous foreign debt service and trying to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Justified Applause?

In the official accounts, the macroeconomic balances do not look so negative. The 1997 fiscal deficit came to only 3%, cumulative inflation was 13%, international reserves surpassed $450 million, there is monetary liquidity in the banking system and national currency devaluations with respect to the dollar were contained.

However, applause for this data does not mesh with three significant facts. First: Honduran economic management did not pass the World Bank and International Monetary Fund tests. The "student" failed various classes and the IMF only authorized the signing of a "monitoring" accord, which does not let Honduras go to the Club of Paris to negotiate condonation of its foreign debt. Second: close advisers to the President-elect warned that "the accounts are fine until December 1997, but not for 1998." Third: inequalities are becoming even more extreme in Honduran society and with that comes social polarization. Of the income not used to service the foreign debt, 80% of the population shares 35.5% while 20% gets the other 67.5%.

The crisis has worsened for the majority ever since the adjustment model was imposed in 1990. Between then and 1997 there was a cumulative devaluation of 562% making it impossible for the majority of Hondurans to address their basic necessities. During the Reina government alone the devaluation reached 126%.

The average monthly cost of the basic diet of a typical family of 5-6 members is US$256.90, but monthly wages for the majority of workers range between $50 and $136. Annual per-capita income, which averages US$718, is barely enough for a poor family to survive two or three months—even if they in fact receive so much, which most do not.

"Year of Fluff"

The inequalities are clearly reflected in education. Barely 6.5% of the rural youth has access to middle and higher education. As is to be expected, those most vulnerable to the crisis are women and children. Women are one of the most affected groups, given that they head up to 30% of all Honduran households and 65% of those households are poor.

Despite the seriousness of the national panorama, the electoral process was devoid of proposals, above all from the two traditional parties. Politicians continued to offer more of the same, as if there were no solutions or alternatives. A Jesuit analyst called the electoral period the "year of fluff," given the empty promises and proposals from politicians.

Flores: Authoritarian?

This reality points to growing ungovernability. What attitude will the new President take to it? Various such questions are floating around. Why did he seek power? And what sort of order and social control does he have in mind?
The political opposition fears that Flores Facussé has an authoritarian bent that will flourish under the presidentialism characterizing Honduran public administration. This would not be in tune with the constant demand of broad sectors for a democracy that promotes the citizenry's participation.

An exclusionary exercise of the presidency which does not take the people into account would feed into the thesis that democratic governability is not possible in countries as poor as Honduras, at least not for an indefinitely long initial stage. The number of social demands is so great that meeting them would make economic growth impossible.

Governability based on authoritarianism, however, does not guarantee national stability, especially in Honduras. The main institutional advances in this country arise not necessarily from government but from a broad gamut of both foreign and domestic de facto powers, ranging from international organizations to Honduran ones, in which women's groups, human rights and ethnic organizations, environmentalists, social economic collectives, Christian base communities stand out.

The most interesting trend in Honduras today is this: if in the 1980s the political parties made up the fundamental basis of constitutional order, politics in the 1990s cannot be understood without the complement of civil participation in its various forms.

The emergence of the civil factor as a decisive element to either animate or put a brake on the Honduran process goes hand in hand with the collective perception of two key elements:
* the transition towards democratic institutionality has not concluded.

* Consolidation of that process requires that its rules and the effective and potential spaces to be strengthened be made clear, taking the process beyond the reductionist competence of "politicians."

"Culture of Fraud" Persists

People resent the old electoral vices and the way the parties themselves discredit politics. Many voters no longer approve of, for example, the rigged selection of pre-candidates or the absence of real proposals, above all from the traditional parties. From the citizenry's point of view, the legitimacy and representativity of the elections need to be strengthened through a clean census, good candidates and effective and viable proposals to resolve crucial community, regional and national problems.

How many think this way? The problem is complex. The "culture of fraud" still has adherents and space in Honduran politics, and is manifested not only in the leading power groups, where maneuvers are common. It is also reproduced in the middle level and base structures, through so-called "political activists," an expansive and deformed social sector created by the parties for proselytism.

Such "activists" filled the recent electoral process with illegal practices that culminated in 63 formal challenges to the vote count, none of which was accepted by the highly politicized National Electoral Tribunal.

Abstention Dropped

It is clear that the Honduran democratic transition requires greater civil participation in order to revitalize itself, but this implies overcoming a paradox: the citizenry is hesitant to participate in "traditional politics" and is seeking, but not finding, new ways of doing politics.

This explains in part the abstention rate and also the notable advances in electoral democracy and institutional modernization with respect to just a few years ago. The electoral discrediting and resulting loss of representativity of elected authorities will likely end up affecting alternative citizen participation, which aspires to new democratic conquests.

Reina ended up being a leader with limited representativity. He came to the presidency in 1993 with 33.2% of the votes; 29.4% voted against him and 37.4% abstained or cast blank or annulled ballots. The panorama improved for Carlos Flores, who won 52.8% of the votes. Abstention dropped to 24% across the nation, even though in important departments like Atlántida, Colón, Cortés and Yoro it exceeded 32%.

The drop in abstentions in 1997 can be explained largely by the implementation of two new features. One was the "domiciliary vote," which allowed voters to use the polls closest to their habitual residence. The other novelty was three separate ballots for President, congressional representatives and municipal authorities.

Can't or Don't Want to?

Abstention is a serious phenomenon, and paradoxically is little studied in Honduras. It is not known exactly how many people don't vote because they can't, and how many because they don't want to. In general terms critical abstentionists gave up their right to vote because of disenchantment with party politics; incredulity towards the institutions born from popular election and/or a lack of alternative political options that reflect their interests as voters.

Though abstention is a major political phenomenon in Honduras, those who choose not to vote do not necessarily abstain from all political and social participation. There is an organizing tradition in the country that seeks other social cohesion mechanisms that should be taken advantage of and deepened. The challenge is to transform social diversity into democratic plurality with defined objectives. This will be achieved to the extent that the population feels it has participatory mechanisms to influence, consult and decide on the social and economic policies that the national and municipal governments carry out.

Participatory Spaces

It is increasingly important to encourage and link up political practice through existing resources such as the following:
* Municipal Development Councils, community organizations that should plan, advise, deliberate on and determine municipal development with the municipal corporation, to prevent local government plans from being improvised or based on the personal criteria of a few;
* The plebiscite, a consulting mechanism that exists at the municipal level;
* Open forums, a consultation and direct participation instrument for municipal neighbors to take part in local government decisions.

In perspective, other pending instruments of civil participation can also be developed. For example, the Popular Law bill, which would give the population the right to introduce legislation to the National Congress and ordinances to the municipal corporations.

Currently only representatives, or the executive branch through the Ministry of Governance have that right. The Popular Law would not guarantee approval of a bill, but its formulation and later debate in the legislature or municipal corporation would be a valuable addition to the national democratization process.

Despite the conservatism of traditional politicians, there is a growing tendency in Honduras, as in other Latin American countries, to reduce the frontier between the public and the private, establishing the principle of accountability to the citizenship by government officials and state institutions. The challenge is to consolidate this tendency within a democratic political culture.

The responsibility is great for incipient civil society, which must construct the necessary balance among the values of democratic governability, the interests of political parties and those of the population.

The Challenge for Society

The future of this challenge is largely conditioned today by the course of Flores Facussé's administration. If the new President is aware of the potential and the richness of the "other way," of building democratic citizenship, the perspectives for improving the country's situation are broad, because Honduras has the natural and human resources to be successful. If he ignores that potential and governs alone, the panorama will be disappointing and could bring unforeseeable consequences.

The democratization process initiated in the 1980s as an electoral practice to substitute civilian for military leaders of the state, is inconclusive. The strengthening or weakening of civil society will be what largely determines whether or not this transition—which sometimes seems to be a never-ending history—will conclude positively.

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