Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro, the first woman to lead the Central American nation, is awaiting results from tight legislative races to see if her left-wing party would gain control of Congress, a day after her main rival conceded defeat.
With the right-wing National Party’s 12-year hold on power set to end when Castro is inaugurated in January, attention on Wednesday shifted to the fate of the 128-member Congress.
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The congressional balance of power is in the air, but preliminary results appeared to point to the possibility of a simple majority for Castro’s party and its allies – if the trend of the current vote tally holds.
That would ease the passage of some of Castro’s legislative priorities, but her pledge to convoke an assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution could still be blocked since that would require a two-thirds majority.
Denis Gomez, a former electoral council member, estimated that Castro’s Free Party would win 51 seats, while its main ally, the party of Vice President-elect Salvador Nasralla, would get 14, giving the governing coalition a one-member majority.
But Gomez stressed that this projected makeup of the unicameral legislature could still change if the trend in the count shifts.
It is unclear when the final vote count will be announced.
“If that majority doesn’t hold, they would have to negotiate,” he said, most likely with the centre-right Liberal Party, which after the National Party, is projected to form the third-largest bloc in the next Congress.
Political analyst Raul Pineda was less cautious about Castro’s influence over incoming lawmakers. He said her party, working with the vice president’s party, will “have a simple majority to reform or repeal laws”.
But Castro and her allies would need to peel off nearly 20 more votes, most likely from the Liberal Party, to reach a two-thirds majority for constitutional reforms, Pineda added.
The same super-majority also would be needed to elect new members of the Supreme Court and a new attorney general.
Challenges and opportunities
In addition to political wrangling in Congress, Castro will face other major challenges as she steps into the role of president in the Central American country.
Unemployment is above 10 percent, northern Honduras was devastated by two major hurricanes last year, and street gangs have dragged down the economy with extortion rackets and violence, driving migration to the United States.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken congratulated Castro on her victory on Tuesday night and said he looked forward to working with her to “strengthen democratic institutions, promote inclusive economic growth and fight corruption”.
The Honduran people exercised their power to vote in a free and fair election. We congratulate them and President Elect @XiomaraCastroZ and look forward to working together to strengthen democratic institutions, promote inclusive economic growth, and fight corruption.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) December 1, 2021
Castro’s government could present challenges, but also opportunities for the administration of US President Joe Biden, which had sought to keep her predecessor at arm’s length over concerns about corruption and ties to drug gangs.
Many Castro supporters remember the US government’s initial sluggishness in calling the 2009 overthrow of Castro’s husband Manuel Zelaya from the presidency a coup, and then proceeding to work closely with the National Party presidents who followed.
From the US perspective, Washington remembers how Castro and Zelaya cosied up to then-Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.
But analysts have said common ground between Castro and the US government exists in at least three areas: immigration, drug trafficking and corruption. And with tense relations prevailing between Washington and the leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala, the US government could use a productive relationship with Honduras.
Despite opponents’ efforts to paint Castro as a communist, experts expected her to govern as a centrist with a desire to lift up Honduras’s poor while attracting foreign investment.
In a speech in June, Castro pledged to propose a plan to the Biden administration to “combat and address the true causes of migration”.
Castro describes Hondurans’ emigration in terms of flight to escape inequality, corruption, poverty and violence. That is not too different from how senior officials in the Biden administration have framed the issue, and where they have said they want to focus US aid.
But Castro also puts some of the blame on the US government.
“I believe the Biden administration has an enormous opportunity to address the issue of migration,” Castro said in the June speech. “First, recognising that they have part of the responsibility for what happens in our country,” she added, noting the 2009 coup.
Castro has hammered the administration of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez over corruption.
It was Hernandez’s administration that let the Organization of American States’ anti-corruption mission in Honduras expire in 2020 after its work had touched some of the National Party’s lawmakers for alleged misuse of public funds.
She has said she is interested in having an international anti-corruption mission return to Honduras. That, combined with a strong, independent attorney general, could begin to tackle one of the country’s most profound problems.
US federal prosecutors have put corruption under the microscope in drug trafficking cases that have reached high-ranking Honduran politicians. The most notable was the conviction of Hernandez’s brother, a former federal lawmaker, on drug trafficking charges that earned him a life sentence in the US.