While most Hondurans will observe that there is not a history of electoral violence in their country, in 2013, Honduras experienced a spate of such violence, principally directed at candidates and members of the opposition Partido Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE). The political legacy of the 2009 coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya’s rumored bid to extend his term continues to foster cleavages in the polity between right and left; and elites and others. In fact, President Zelaya’s perceived drift to the left by the elites and business community was viewed by some observers as the underlying motive for the coup. And, along these lines, the trigger may have been his decision to conduct a plebiscite for a convention to re-write the constitution allowing for wider public participation in governance. These same cleavages create vulnerabilities for electoral violence to return in the October 2017 election as the left begins a serious run for the presidency. In addition, given the high level of violence in general (at 92 per 100,000, Honduras has one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world), and the impunity associated with the perpetrators, electoral violence is seen by many as a small component of the overall violence experienced on a daily basis. Nevertheless, by one analysis there were at least 19 homicides associated with the 2013 election and an intimidation campaign conducted through social media and SMS texting. As a result, in comparison to elections in other countries, this level of violence puts Honduras in a category of high intensity (3), as measured by the Straus and Taylor scale (0 to 3).
The prospects for violence in the November 2013 election, prompted a letter signed by 24 United States Senators expressing concern about human rights in Honduras and requesting then Sectary of State John Kerry “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ up November 2013 elections are free, fair, and peaceful”. This letter was followed by another one signed by three Members of the House of representatives which urged the United States Embassy to stake a more forceful stance against the militarization of police and attacks on opposition supporters, particularly LIBRE. The human rights organization Rights Action conducted a survey of incidents against LIBRE candidates, pre-candidates, candidates’ close relatives, and campaign leaders. From this group of individuals, the survey identified 19 homicides and 15 armed attacks. By comparison, during the November 2012 primary, there were 17 homicides and nine armed attacks against all eight political parties, not just one. Additionally, Manuel Murillo Valero, a journalist noted for his coverage of the military raid on Zelaya’s house on the morning of the coup was murdered in November.
As recently as October 2016, police employed tear gas to break up a demonstration of protesters from the left and center against the right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. In addition, over the last couple of years, several government opponents have been murdered, stoking fears of a return of political death squads. One of the higher profile murders was that of environmentalist and indigenous rights activist Berta Cacres, whose case files disappeared from the automobile of the magistrate overseeing the case. Although five people were arrested in her disappearance, it is feared that the case will collapse without these records and that witnesses identified in the document will be put into danger. These developments are prompting the opposition to consider their options for campaigning without being the target of violence. Additionally, the economic situation for the poor and working class have significantly declined under Hernandez and his predecessor Porfirio Lobo, both of the National Party.
As a result, the prospects for electoral violence in the 2017 electoral cycle can be summarized as follows. The intensity of the political divisions between leftist (opposition) and rightist (incumbent) forces creates a fundamental vulnerability for these divisions to play out as electoral violence. The motives of the right align with major commercial interests and creates significant financial incentives to keep the National Party in power. The likely victims will be LIBRE candidates and supporters. Depending upon the perceived political strength of the left, there could be a re-emergence of shadowy death squads acting against leftist leaders. However, if the violence seems to be proving effective at blunting the opposition, one scenario could emerge whereby the left adopts violent tactics in retaliation to attacks on its supporters. However, if such retaliations occur, there is likely to be a severe backlash in the incumbent’s use of force, a risk in any case, by the police.
The elite-driven source of electoral violence will make it difficult to prevent. Political divisions have an ideological dimension in Honduras; but the employment of violence to retain the financial perquisites of power is a business decision. Peace messaging and activities may create a mitigating environment, but such programming will fall on deaf ears for the invested elites.
The principal tool available to the international community to deter this violence is preventative diplomacy. The perceptions by some are that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved too quickly to call for fresh elections after the 2009 coup and did not make any statements about re-installing Zelaya into the presidency. This move was seen by some as favorable for the National Party. Correct or not, this perception could provide the United States with a diplomatic opening with Honduras leaders to eschew violence in the upcoming elections or face sanctions in assistance and support.