Days before Hondurans go to the polls in the country’s most eagerly anticipated elections in decades, a group of young people wearing red and white T-shirts are busy handing out stickers and voting information to passers-by in the rowdy main square of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Red and white are the colors of the Freedom and Refoundation Party, known by its Spanish acronym, Libre, and the young people are part of an army of activists who have changed the political landscape in Honduras since 2009.
“Libre is the only party interested in opportunities for young people like me who don’t have connections or can’t pay their way into a new job,” said Melissa Mendoza Valladores, 21, a business studies graduate. “This could finally be our chance — an opportunity for ordinary people like me.”
Four years after a coup deposed former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a democratically elected Liberal president, his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the Libre candidate, has a real chance of being elected as the country’s first left-leaning president.
Yesterday’s vote to elect the president, congress and local governments was to be the first time Hondurans were offered a genuine alternative to the right-wing National Party and center-right Liberals, which — apart from a few periods of military rule — have rotated power for the past century.
Libre emerged from a post-coup political resistance movement, bringing together an eclectic mix of trade union and LGBT activists, human-rights defenders, campesino and indigenous organizations, youth and feminist groups, teachers and intellectuals, former Liberals who opposed the coup and many others mobilized in an unprecedented grassroots base.
Neither Zelaya, who spent months holed up in the Brazilian embassy and was later exiled in the Dominican Republic, nor his many enemies could have foreseen this most unlikely transformation.
Carlos Diaz, a professor of pedagogy and a Libre activist, said: “In 33 years of working for social change in Honduras, this is the first time we have a party which truly represents every part of society, something I never imagined possible. No matter what happens on Sunday [yesterday] we have succeeded in mobilizing communities long abandoned or disaffected by Honduran mainstream politics.”
Without the financial support enjoyed by the two traditional parties, Libre has organized simply and methodically from neighborhood to neighborhood over the past three years.
It has promised a new constitution to make powerful, politically aligned institutions such as the national congress and judiciary, which both orchestrated the military coup, more democratic and accountable to the public rather than just to foreign investors and the country’s 10 richest families, which have dominated Honduran politics for the past century.
Libre has also promised to renegotiate the terms of foreign contracts and international debt repayments, and work to rehabilitate street gangs.
There is undoubtedly a radical socialist element within its ranks, but despite right wing scaremongering that Castro de Zelaya is a new Hugo Chavez, Libre is also explicitly pro-business and US friendly.
For many months Castro de Zelaya was ahead in the polls, followed closely by Salvador Nasralla, an ultraconservative sports broadcaster and political novice running for his new Anti-Corruption Party.
However, the man to watch is the National Party’s neoliberal candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has proved himself to be politically adept in the role of president of the national congress since 2010, when his party won controversial and violent elections that were boycotted by many.
After the coup, Honduras — already struggling with extreme levels of violence — descended into a vortex of criminality: By 2011, it had become the most violent country in the world outside of a warzone, with 91.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, a 59 percent increase in three years, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
International drug cartels — which hugely expanded during the post-coup chaos — street gangs, corrupt private and state security forces working with organized criminals and private businesses have all played a role in the violence, making security the top issue for many voters.
Orlando Hernandez’s campaign promise of a “soldier on every corner” is supported by many ordinary people: The military is undoubtedly more trusted by most Hondurans than the civil police, whose leader, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, has been accused of leading death squads.
However, according to Amnesty International and local human rights groups, the military carried out abuses with impunity in the aftermath of the coup. Karen Spring, of the NGO Rights Action, said: “Honduras has been a dream for multinational corporations since the coup as the illegitimate government hammered through laws to favor international investors in tourism, mining, dams and model cities, while communities trying to protect their land have been criminalized and militarized.”
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas with 60 percent of its 8 million people living in poverty. In the two years after the coup, Honduras saw the most rapid rise in inequality in Latin America, research by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed this month.
Rights Action has documented the murders of at least 18 Libre candidates and activists since May last year, more than those of all other parties combined. At least 67 lawyers and 30 journalists have been killed since 2009.
In Tegucigalpa, National Party billboards and fancy flags dominate the streets. The newspapers, many of which promoted the coup, overwhelmingly support Orlando Hernandez while often criticizing Libre as a party backed by foreign agitators.
Reynerio Adalid Fuentes, a taxi driver, is among the million or so independent voters who are likely to decide the outcome.
“Honduras needs security and continuity in order to attract foreign companies and develop, that’s why I am voting for the National Party,” he said. “I want our police and army on the streets to deal with the delinquency.”
None of the candidates looks likely to win a large majority. Hondurans might end up electing their first female, left-leaning president, but without a majority in congress she may face a powerful National-Liberal alliance intent on preserving the “status quo.”