Tegucigalpa, Honduras – Hondurans voted to choose a new president on Sunday in an election that lays bare the fragility of the Central American country’s democracy eight years after it suffered a military coup.
The election is unprecedented, marking the first time a Honduran president seeks re-election.
Official results have been delayed, but President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the conservative National Party claimed victory as Salvador Nasralla of the Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship also claimed to be “winning”.
Despite a constitutional ban on re-election, Hernandez is running for a second term based on a contentious 2015 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the article prohibiting re-election.
His opponents argue that only the Honduran people hold the power to change the constitution, making Hernandez’s candidacy “illegal”.
“There is an important percentage of citizens that reject and are against a candidate that seeks re-election in an illegal and illegitimate way,” Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist and professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, told Al Jazeera.
Despite the controversy, Hernandez has been projected to win. Polls in October before the one-month polling blackout before election day showed he held a double-digit lead over his closest contender, Salvador Nasralla of the left-right Opposition Alliance.
“The possibility of Hernandez winning has to do with the fact that the citizens that are against him are divided between two political forces, the Liberals on one hand and the [Opposition] Alliance on the other,” Sosa said.
Hernandez has campaigned on continuing his government’s hard line security policies and business-friendly economic initiatives.
He adamantly defends the country’s military police force, created by his National Party predecessor, Porfirio Lobo, and advocates an ongoing military presence in the streets.
His economic policies focus on attracting foreign investment, including through controversial economic zones known as ZEDEs that would allow corporations to circumvent local regulations.
Nasralla, a TV presenter who debuted as an outsider presidential candidate in the 2013 election, has campaigned on fighting corruption, strengthening public health and education, combatting crime with prevention, and introducing agrarian reforms, among other proposals.
His Opposition Alliance’s platform also includes plans to hold a vote on whether to convene a national constituent assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution.
The proposal, together with the re-election debate, stirs up memories of the 2009 US-backed military coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya, who now backs Nasralla’s candidacy.
Zelaya had planned a non-binding poll on whether to hold a referendum on putting together a constituent assembly. Regardless of the outcome of the poll, Zelaya was barred from being on the November 2009 ballot. But coup supporters justified Zelaya’s removal by claiming that he was attempting to change the constitution to prolong his stay in power.
Now, Hernandez, who supported Zelaya’s removal, is ahead, while the core demand of the post-coup resistance movement to “re-found” the state through a constituent assembly remains unfulfilled.
But Sosa argued that the terrain may have shifted in the final leg of the campaign, opening possibilities for an opposition win.
There have not been any new official polls since last month, because there is a ban on new polling data for one month before election day.
Sosa explained that some Liberal Party voters who reject the president’s re-election may consider throwing their support behind the Opposition Alliance as the most viable option to block Hernandez from clinching power.
Whether the Opposition Alliance is successful, Sosa added, will spell the next stage in a still-unfinished process of political parties reconfiguring after the coup.
A key factor in Sunday’s outcome, Sosa said, will be how many voters show up to the polls. Turnout was 61 percent in 2013, up from 50 percent in 2005 and 2009.
Both the Opposition Alliance and Liberal Party have accused the National Party of conspiring with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to carry out a sophisticated fraud plot to rig the elections in Hernandez’s favour. Hernandez has remained silent on the accusations. TSE chief David Matamoros Batson has said the body is working to guarantee free and transparent elections.
“If there are complaints of fraud but the victory is very tight, as it may be, it could lead to a post-election scenario of very strong citizen dissatisfaction and rejection [of the results],” Sosa said.
Less than a week ahead of the elections, the National Party accused Venezuela of interfering in the election to support the opposition. Nasralla denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the Opposition Alliance accused the National Party of using fear tactics to influence the election and called on voters to not be intimidated.
Warning of gang violence, the government also introduced a one-week ban on carrying firearms as part of security measures. Nasralla argued the weapons ban should also extend to the police and military, which have been repeatedly accused of human rights violations.
Meanwhile, Honduras’ human rights record remains grave. The country is the most deadly in the world for environmental activists, according to the human rights watchdog Global Witness – a situation epitomised by the 2016 murder of internationally renowned indigenous resistance leader Berta Caceres.
“The life of Honduran people is at play in this election because we’re in an economic crisis [and] the human rights violations by the government are increasingly evident,” Kevhin Ramos of the Association for Democracy and Human Rights told Al Jazeera.
the human rights violations by the government are increasingly evident.”]
“It’s been an aggressive government, and if [Hernandez] wins, it could represent a great setback for human rights,” he continued, highlighting specific cases of assassinations and criminalisation of social activists.
Since the coup, indigenous people, peasant farmers, LGBT people, lawyers, human rights defenders and other social leaders have suffered widespread abuses, including targeted attacks.
The country is also one of the most dangerous in the Americas for journalists, with 28 journalists murdered between 2010 and 2015, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Although the homicide rate has dropped from when it was infamously dubbed the “murder capital of the world” in the wake of the 2009 coup, it is still one of the most deadly countries in the world, with a murder rate of 59.1 per 100,000 people, according to 2016 data from the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
High levels of impunity allow most violent deaths to go unpunished. Official 2013 statistics revealed that 80 percent of homicides go unpunished, but civil society groups have suggested the impunity rate is likely even higher.
Hondurans also voted to elect 128 congressional representatives, 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament and 298 mayors.