Even as Xiomara Castro de Zelaya continues to dispute the victory of center-right rival Juan Orlando Hernández in last month’s presidential election, the Honduran electoral commission released the final results of the parliamentary elections that were also conducted on November 24.
As expected, no single party won a majority in the 128-member, unicameral Congreso Nacional (National Congress).
That means when Hernández is inaugurated as Honduras’s next president, he will do so with less power than he had as president of the National Congress over the past four years. With just 48 deputies, his center-right Partido National (PN, National Party) will return to the National Congress not only without a majority, but with 23 fewer seats than in the previous Congress, during which the National Party controlled both the National Congress and the presidency under outgoing president Porfirio Lobo Sosa.
Since the return of regular democratic elections in 1981, each of Honduras’s presidents has also held a majority (or near-majority) in the National Congress, so there’s not a lot of precedent for coalition government to which its leaders can now turn. Despite the novelty of coalition politics in Honduras, however, it’s about to become a vital component.
Though Castro de Zelaya (and her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya) might be disappointed by her apparent 8% loss to Hernández, they should be buoyed by the success of their party, the Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, Party of Liberty and Refoundation), in the parliamentary elections. By winning 37 seats in the National Congress, LIBRE has prevented any single party from winning an outright majority, a radical change to modern Honduran politics. Although Zelaya and other left-wing activists founded LIBRE only in June 2011, taking with them many of Zelaya’s supporters in the traditionally center-left Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party), it has now displaced the Liberal Party as the second-strongest force in the National Congress.
That leaves the Zelayas with a choice. They can continue a path of resistance against an election that they argue was fraudulent (less in terms of ballot fraud and more in terms of fundamental unfairness in the environment of danger and fear for LIBRE candidates). By doing so, however, the Zelayas risk losing popular support in the same way that Andrés Manuel López Obrador gradually lost steam in his protests against the 2006 Mexican election results, and the Zelayas risk alienating LIBRE from the other main political parties. Or they can take up the mantle of Honduras’s chief democratic opposition from their relatively strong perch in the National Congress, where Zelaya (the former president) will now hold a congressional seat.
The first test will come when the National Congress elects its new president, and Hernández will almost certainly want to marshal enough support to install one of his top congressional lieutenants, former security minister Oscar Álvarez, Lena Gutiérrez or Rigoberto Chang Castillo, as his successor.
Sports reporter Salvador Nasralla, who finished in fourth place in the presidential election, managed to win 13 seats for his Partido Anticorrupción (Anti-Corruption Party), a relatively populist, conservative party founded just last year. Though the party may be loath to join a formal coalition with the National Party, it nonetheless has more in common with Hernández than with the Liberal Party or with LIBRE. Together, the National Party and the Anti-Corruption Party control just 61 seats, four short of a majority — and that’s assuming that Hernández can persuade (or buy) the unity of all 13 deputies from the Anti-Coruption Party.
With just a handful of Liberal Party members, Hernández could cobble together a more solid majority — both to elect a president of the National Congress and to serve as a template for future legislative action. With the full support of both the Liberal Party and the Anti-Corruption Party, Hernández would conceivably hold enough votes (88) for a qualified two-thirds majority to pass extraordinary legislation.
On the other hand, if Zelaya can find a way to unite with the Liberals (formally or informally) in a broad anti-Hernández front, they would hold 64 seats. They would need, therefore, just one vote from among the three small parties in the National Congress, in order to elect their own president in the National Congress. Those three parties include the good-government, social democratic Partido Innovación y Unidad (Party of Innovation and Unity), the Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras (DC, Christian Democratic Party of Honduras) and the socialist Partido Unificación Democrática (PUD, Democratic Unification Party) — all three lie within the center or the left of the Honduran political spectrum. So if LIBRE and the Liberals can somehow join forces, it’s almost certain that they’ll find the remaining votes to command a majority.
That’s a long way of saying that a wounded Liberal Party, which had traditionally been one of the two major parties in Honduran politics, will be the kingmaker in determining the next president of the National Congress (so much so that the next president might even be a Liberal deputy), and it will hold the balance of power in determining what’s passed into law in Honduras over the next four years.
But the Liberals face a nearly existential problem between now and 2017, and there are risks with aligning too closely with either the National Party or LIBRE. It might be embarrassing for Liberals to join forces as the junior partner to Zelaya’s newly muscular LIBRE — to do so might could the differences between the two parties, thereby pushing the Liberal Party’s conservative supporters toward the National Party between now and 2017. Moreover, most of the Liberal Party’s left wing has already left the party, which made the Liberals more a center-right party in 2013 than a truly center-left one. But an alliance with the National Party would emphasize that the Liberals have been part of a too-often cozy, corrupt political elite throughout the 20th century, thereby ceding to LIBRE the sole mantle as the chief opposition to Hernández.
The third option would be for the Liberals to attempt a triangulation strategy — equidistant between the National Party and LIBRE. That strategy, however, runs the risk of leaving Honduran policymaking paralyzed at a time of severe economic and security crises.