AS/COA Online - Pepe Lobo Wins Contested Honduran Election

Co-authored with Mark Osmond. Hondurans turned out to vote Sunday in hotly contested elections, which the National Party's Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo won by a wide margin, according to figures posted by the country's electoral tribunal. Given that he polled ahead of his top opponent, the Liberal Party's Elvin Santos, for weeks before the election, Lobo's victory came as little surprise. What remains less clear is whether a four-month-old political crisis will fade away now that the elections have come and gone. Deposed leader Manuel Zelaya remains holed up in Brazil’s embassy while division runs deep over the election results’ legitimacy.

Lobo, a wealthy farmer who studied in both the Soviet Union and the United States and lost the presidency to Zelaya in 2005 elections, pulled in roughly 56 percent of the vote. Santos received about 38 percent. A Lobo  victory had been forecasted; a CID-Gallup poll from earlier this month placed him 16 points ahead. The issue of voter turnout was a bigger question throughout the election day. The electoral tribunal reported the turnout rate to be 61 percent--higher than the 45 percent posted in 2005. But earlier figures put abstention rates at 44 percent and Zelaya said his sources reported voter abstinence rates of 65 percent. 4.5 million registered voters, including in six U.S. cities, had to choose a president, three vice presidents, 128 congressional deputies, 20 memebers of the Central American Parliament, and nearly 300 mayors.

It remains unclear whether the election results will gain international legitimacy. The EU and Organization of American States didn’t send electoral observers. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela will not recognize the elections. Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru say they will join Washington in recognizing the election results. Ministers meeting in Estoril, Portugal, for the Ibero-American summit failed to agree on the election's legitimacy. During a November 19 AS/COA panel, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems' William Sweeney gave an overview of the electoral tribunal's preparations and the role of electoral observers. The Organization of American States plans to hold a meeting about the election outcome on December 4.

In the meantime, the Honduran Congress will debate whether to restore ousted leader Zelaya for the remainder of his term, which is scheduled to conclude in January. A few short weeks ago, a U.S.-brokered deal seemed to place the crisis on the path to a resolution. Negotiators for Zelaya and the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti agreed to a power-sharing pact. As part of it, the National Congress would decide how to answer the sticky question of whether to reinstate Zelaya, who was forced to quit country and office on June 28 but snuck back to Tegucigalpa to take refuge in the embassy in late September.

Yet the October agreement set no specific date for the Congress to vote on Zelaya’s restitution and legislators chose to set a date of December 2—after elections. Washington said the letter of the deal had been followed and announced intentions of recognizing the election results as a step toward reconciliation. Meanwhile, Zelaya called the week-old deal “dead.”  The ousted leader then penned a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama to inform him that he would not accept an offer to return to office as to do so would legitimize those who overthrew him in the coup.

Should Lobo take the reins in January 2010 as scheduled, he will need to steer the country through troubled economic waters. The global economic downturn combined with instability resulting from the coup has left Honduras in desperate straits since Zelaya’s ouster. GDP grew at 6.7 percent in 2006 and 6.3 percent the following year. Shocks from the international economic meltdown knocked its growth rate to 4.0 percent in 2008, though Honduras remained the fastest growing economy in Central America after Costa Rica. The IMF forecasts that the Honduran economy will contract by 2.0 percent in 2009. Food programs that expanded during the Zelaya administration coincided with slight reductions in the country’s poverty rate, which runs at about 70 percent, but the recent political instability could reverse that course.