Five reasons why Mauricio Villeda could still win the Honduran presidency

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TEGUCIGALPA — In the political civil war that’s pitted conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernández against leftist Xiomara Castro de Zelaya in a zero-sum fight for supremacy, the third candidate in the race could emerge as the moderate alternative to both.honduras flag icon

Hernández is the candidate of the one of the two longtime traditional parties in Honduras, the Partido Nacional (PN, National Party).  But Villeda represents the other, more centrist party, the Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party).  It was the party to which Manuel Zelaya belonged when he was president between 2006 and 2009, though Zelaya distanced himself from the party after even many Liberals supported the June 2009 military coup that ousted him.  Ultimately, Zelaya left the Liberals to form the Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, Party of Liberty and Refoundation) in 2011, and he took much of the pro-labor, leftist wing of the Liberal Party with him.

There are a lot of reasons why Villeda has stumbled so far during the campaign.  He certainly has less money than the National Party and the Hernández campaign.  Veteran political reporter Jonathán Roussel referred to him as the ‘Michael Dukakis’ of Honduran politics, which is a somewhat generous interpretation of a candidate who lacks the charisma of either of his two main rivals and whose background as an attorney marks him as a colorless bureaucrat on the campaign trail.

The latest polls, which are unreliable and now nearly a month old, show Hernández and Castro de Zelaya tied for first place with around 30% support each and Villeda far back in third place with around 20%. (Polls are prohibited in Honduras in the month prior to the election, so we won’t have any public data before Sunday’s election).

In a week of talking with Hondurans in Tegucigalpa on both the left and the right, many people cautioned not to rule Villeda out.  With five days to go until Hondurans vote, here are five reasons why Villeda could still become Honduran’s next president. 

Charmlessness is a virtue.

The case against Castro de Zelaya is that her campaign represents a back-door route for her husband to return to the Honduran presidency, with an agenda of ham-fisted redistribution, Chávez-style constitutional changes that tilt the political field permanently leftward, and would antagonize the United States by turning once again to Venezuela and the relatively anti-American leftist bloc within Latin America — all against the wishes of a relatively suprapartisan business elite.

The case against Hernández is that he would become an elected dictator, with a new military police force designed more to stifle political dissent than to take a more strident line against drug trafficking.  Furthermore, he has virtually no plan to either rescue Honduras’s horrible public finances or to address the income inequality, poverty, joblessness and ingrained economic injustice that plagues Honduras.

In short, many Hondurans feel like their choice is between a nutty socialist and a petty dictator, neither of whom have much regard for the rule of law.  By process of elimination, that leaves Villeda.  When voters look at Villeda, they see a charmless, boring technocrat.  But that could turn out to be an advantage.

In this regard, Villeda resembles neither Zelaya nor Lobo Sosa, but Ricardo Maduro, Honduras’s president between 2002 and 2006.  Though certainly a conservative president, Maduro, a Stanford-educated economist, implemented IMF-backed reforms that put Honduran finances on a steadier footing and he halted (and even lowered) violent crime, at least temporarily.  Many Hondurans believe a Villeda presidency could be like a center-left, technocratic counterpart to the Maduro administration.

Residual Liberal Party support.

For nearly a century, the National Party and the Liberal Party have dominated Honduran politics.  Party affiliation is like religion in Honduras and since 1981, the Honduran presidency has bounced between the two parties on relatively narrow margins of victory — the National Party has won three elections and the Liberal Party has won five.  When current president Porfirio Lobo Sosa won 56.5% in the previous November 2009 election, it was the largest margin off victory in three decades, but it reflected the will of a Honduran electorate that wanted to turn the page on both the 2009 coup and the Zelaya presidency.  So there’s a strong core of residual support for both the National Party and the Liberal Party.

Realistically, for all the hype about LIBRE — and it’s real, not just imagined — the new party never been tested in a national election before.  So as election day nears, there’s a real question of whether long-held instincts will trump the excitement over a new political movement.

Villeda’s father.

One of Villeda’s best points is his father, Ramón Villeda Morales, who served as Honduran president between 1957 and 1963.  After winning the largest share of the vote in the 1954 presidential election, the first free election since 1932, it took three years for the Honduran congress and armed forces to agree that Villeda Morales could actually take office.  When he did, he became perhaps the most welfare-minded Honduran president of the 20th century.  As a social democrat with ties to labor activists, Villeda Morales represented a new generation of Liberal Party leadership.  He even spent some time as Honduras’s ambassador to the United States, mostly to allay US fears about his pro-American credentials.

Once in office, Villeda Morales introduced social security benefits, spent widely on public education and public health and passed into law a new pro-worker labor code.  With the election of US president John F. Kennedy in 1960, Villeda Morales forged a strong partnership with the United States through the ‘Alliance for Progress’ program that Kennedy initiated.  But the Villeda Morales reforms ultimately became unpopular with the Honduran elite, and a 1963 coup restored the military to power in the dictatorship of Oswaldo López Arellano.

Despite Villeda’s economic and social conservatism — he comes from the right wing of the Liberal Party and he’s a member of Opus Dei — his father’s presidency is the perfect response to the LIBRE campaign.  Villeda can make the case that he too knows how to enact economic and social justice because his father did it a half-century ago.  Sure, few Hondurans are old enough to remember the Villeda Morales presidency, but it’s still a part of Honduras’s history, and his father’s legacy could have shielded Villeda from LIBRE’s argument that only the Zelayas can bring about true reform.

Marco Cáceres, a longtime writer about Honduran affairs, reports that Villeda has started to emphasize his father’s presidency more often on the campaign trail:

Using a pen belonging to his father… Villeda has signed a series of executive decrees (at campaign events) he will implement if elected. More than symbolizing the promises Mr. Villeda is making, the decrees and their signings have served to highlight some key issues that need to be effectively addressed to begin to establish order in the country…. But the broader and most powerful impact of the decrees is that they portray Mr. Villeda as the next President of Honduras, rather than just another candidate throwing around slogans and launching personal attacks. The visual effect of Mr. Villeda signing decrees is priceless, and it is precisely this image that will make the difference for Mr. Villeda, particularly among the as yet undecided and independent voters.

Villeda is honest.

Hernández’s nickname in Honduras is ‘Juan Robando’ — Juan the robber — and there are rumors of his connections to drug traffickers.

Zelaya’s detractors point to the riches that members of Zelaya’s family suddenly accumulated when he became president in 2006.

But Villeda’s image is fairly pristine — a longtime Tegucigalpa attorney, he entered national politics in 2009 as a stand-in presidential candidate on behalf of vice president Elvin Santos who, for technical constitutional reasons, could not stand for the Liberal Party presidential nomination.  Villeda ultimately stood down for Santos, who lost the 2009 race against Lobo Sosa.

But as Dr. Leo Valladares, a former commissioner of human rights in Honduras, noted in an interview last week, the fear is that Villeda’s honesty might not be enough to ensure an honest regime:

‘Although Mauricio is honest and good, is that enough to run a government, to be honest and good? Around him there are a lot of sleazy people,’ Valladares said.  ‘He’s not the most attractive candidate.  The good ones are almost never attractive people. He is a good person, but that’s might not be enough.’

Villeda hasn’t yet peaked.

Castro de Zelaya led polls for the Honduran presidency all year, and a fourth candidate, sports announcer Salvador Nasralla, who’s waging a populist right-wing campaign, briefly peaked in the summer near first place (he was polling at around 10% or less a month ago).  As Nasralla’s campaign has shriveled, many of his voters returned to Hernández, who has waged a disciplined, well-funded and tenacious campaign, to the point where Hernández rose from third-place also-ran to a frontrunner last month.

But there’s an ebb and flow to every election campaign, and timing is one of the most important factors in any race.

With polling stuck in an artificial early October holding pattern, the race has been distilled into a scorched-earth battle between Hernández and Castro de Zelaya, and that narrative has defined the final month of the campaign.

For all the reasons above, there’s some cause to believe that Villeda is narrowing the gap and absent the prohibition on new polls, we might expect to see Villeda’s numbers increasing and, therefore, a shift in the dominant ‘two-person race’ narrative.  You would thereupon also expect to see both Hernández and Castro de Zelaya respond by turning their campaign fire on Villeda instead of each other.  To the contrary, Villeda has had the entire final month of the campaign to fly under the radar of the slugfest between the other candidates.

If Villeda wins on Sunday, he’ll have brilliantly maximized the timing of his momentum while minimizing the threat of his candidacy to the other campaigns.

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