Will the bipartite system get the opposition back under control?

Posted: June 23, 2014 in Elections in Honduras, political system in Honduras

Will the bipartite system get the opposition back under control?

Did last November’s election results break the traditional bipartite system? Has the Liberal Party crumbled due to its internal splits and its third-place showing in those elections? Who’s playing the role of opposition these days? While crucial, these questions have no firm answers in this first post-electoral moment.

Ismael Moreno

In the National Congress’ inaugural session on January 22, Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) Party representatives went so far as to break the microphone on the legislative board’s table in response to the National and Liberal parties’ manipulation to ensure that Mauricio Oliva, a National Party representative and military adviser, would be elected to chair the new board. After that stormy expression of repudiation, the LIBRE bench went unnoticed for weeks. Finally, on March 18, it showed signs of life again, but this time not in opposition to decisions by the Liberal and National benches. It was rather a confrontation that almost ended in blows between two of its own legislators over differing ideas on how to elect the national human rights commissioner, or ombudsperson.

The Right takes advantage of an opposition that gives such signals by contrasting it with the traditional opposition, one that accepts all the rules of the game and shares public administration under those same rules in exchange for political favors.

A new political map

The results of last November’s general elections redrew the age-old political map, with the National Party winning the presidency with under 37% of the vote, the new LIBRE ousting the Liberal Party from second place with nearly 28%, the Liberal Party moving down to third place with just over 20%, and the also new Anti-Corruption Party placing fourth with over 13%. These novel results highlight LIBRE as the opposition party with real grassroots representation. The central challenge for the traditional political leaders over the three and a half years before the next elections will thus be to assure an “opposition” that again works in their interests. To a great extent the future of the bipartite system depends on playing this right.

Already working for these stakes are the gurus of the two traditional parties: former Presidents Carlos Flores Facussé (Liberal), Rafael Leonardo Callejas (National) and Ricardo Maduro (National). Together with current President Juan Orlando Hernández (National) and other political strategists such as Hernández’s security minister Arturo Corrales Álvarez, the three are determined to redefine the opposition.

These gurus know full well that society’s growing instability and the enormous weakness of the State’s institutionality
are a fertile brew in which an opposition might develop that’s not only outside their bipartite control but effective, and could even turn into an authentic alternative to the traditional parties’ proposals. In their mind this real possibility, already visible in the election results, is an imminent danger.

LIBRE doesn’t fit the mold

It’s true that LIBRE counts a majority breakaway faction of the Liberal Party (PLH) among its ranks and that its indisputable top leader, formerly deposed President Mel Zelaya, who comes from the crudest Liberal traditions, is now a bridge between the minority that remains in his old party and those who left it. In spite of everything, LIBRE as opposition still enjoys the trust of the two-party structures. It doesn’t fit the mold designed over three decades, a mold for shaping an opposition that will complement the governing party, co-govern with it, share posts and make shady deals for managing public affairs.

The opposition has been understood in Honduras as “the same monkey on a different branch,” only absent from the presidential offices and sometimes the legislative leadership body, but always holding shares in the judicial branch and the State’s various watchdog bodies. It has functioned very well like this for those 30 years , so integrated into the bipartite machinery that its workings have become almost mechanical. This “opposition” gave full legitimacy to the “democratic” model, but after the 2009 coup and especially after the barrage of new party proposals headed up by LIBRE, these mechanics have been drastically upset. An opposition disengaged from that bipartite machinery is viewed as a serious problem to be resolved by those devoted to keeping the machine’s gears oiled.

How to resolve this?

How are they planning to resolve this political novelty that’s eroding the very foundations of their model? Firstly, the extreme Right represented by President Juan Orlando Hernández must try to grab away the banners and goals of struggle of the two new parties that won 52 of the Congress’ 128 seats and 30 of the country’s municipal governments. To do so, the government is expanding programs such as the one called the “Ten Thousand Voucher,” a handout program that each government in turn has given in dribs and drabs to the poorest to win over or maintain their party loyalties. Now this paternalistic program is looking to reach beyond the marginal sectors already obedient to the National Party. The government is also bringing on line other paternalistic programs such as “A Better Life,” aimed at marginal sectors susceptible to discontent and thus capable of mobilizing behind LIBRE’s leftist banners.

Another step the defenders of the old status quo have taken is in the field of foreign policy. President Hernández is initiating a rapprochement with left-leaning governments. His first foreign policy act was to attend the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Havana. CELAC, of which Honduras is a member, is made up of 33 independent States of the region and is conceived as an alternative integration mechanism to the Organization of American States, which is so dominated by the United States. A few weeks later Hernández revived diplomatic relations with the government of Ecuador and has taken steps to remain in Venezuela’s Petrocaribe initiative. There’s even talk of Honduras re-joining ALBA, if circumstances permit, which is ironic given that membership in it was not only interrupted by the coup that ousted Zelaya but used as an excuse for it.

The case of the ombudsman

The authoritarian political and economic model headed up by President Hernández has a long-term projection, with talk of consolidating it over the next 50 years. Achieving this requires an opposition that’s under control and incorporated into the model. The election of the ombudsperson in March was an example of some tactical maneuvering in that direction.

Obviously the goal was to assure that the new head of the constitutionally autonomous National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) would be under the direct control of the executive branch. But they didn’t expect the barrage of diverse human rights organizations that became an authentic opposition in place of LIBRE’s weakened opposition in the National Congress. Not only challenging the intention of imposing the candidate for this post, these organizations proposed names and selection procedures. Twenty-one candidates turned up at the National Congress.

A legislative commission consisting of representatives from all parties including LIBRE was named to select candidates. Following hearings, the commission narrowed the choice down to seven for submission to the plenary. But in a lightning session on March 25, a National Party representative moved to elect Héctor Roberto Herrera, a candidate from his party’s crème de la crème who has the profile this authoritarian democracy needs; his election was pushed through with the votes of the National, Liberal and Anti-Corruption parties. At his swearing in to this post for the next six years, the LIBRE legislators shouted “Dictatorship! Dictatorship!” But nothing more…

The legislative siege

In Honduras’ bipartite system the the earth starts to move if any opposition escapes from machinery controlled by the party that didn’t win the presidency and istead identifies with an authentic Left. In the few cases in which such an opposition has threatened the breakdown of the traditional opposition’s machinery, it has always met with repression, physical extermination, ideological disqualification and an information barrier.

This year such an opposition has acquired an official citizenship card and sits with equal rights in seats intended only for an opposition that defends the bipartite democracy. LIBRE is a danger, not only for being opposition but also for defeating the traditional parties. This requires that the Right redouble its efforts to both isolate and discredit LIBRE and bolster the Liberal Party.

That means first of all obstructing LIBRE’s opposition in Congress, obliging it to move its pressure outside ordinary parliamentary rules. Thus, in the final sessions of the previous legislature, the outgoing rightwing legislators reformed the Constitution so that major issues for the State and even constitutional changes previously requiring a qualified majority can now be passed with no more than a simple majority. That means that the 52 National votes plus the 26 Liberal ones will suffice for any decision the bipartite system wants taken in Congress.

This ploy was decided in negotiations between the National and Liberal leaders upon hearing the electoral results, to prevent the 36-member LIBRE bench from blocking or otherwise influencing decisions taken by Congress. Even in the remote event that they join the 13-member Anti-Corruption Party bench, their combined votes still wouldn’t be enough to break the legislative barrier jointly erected by the traditional party representatives.

But blocking any move by the thus-far independent opposition isn’t the only goal. The negotiations between the shaken political elites of the far Right have deep-rooted and far-reaching objectives that will be expressed in specific votes.

Raise the President’s profile

The agreement among the corporate media owners is to raise the profile of President Hernández and keep it raised. This strategy was kicked off by fanning the flames of the conflict with El Salvador induced by a dispute over Conejo Island in the Gulf of Fonseca.

They want to ensure that the President’s profile stays in the headlines and penetrates grassroots consciousness of him as a leader for the long term, not just four years. Congress’ president already sent out a first feeler by stating that people shouldn’t be afraid of the word reelection because Congress always has recourse to legal devices such as plebiscites and referenda should the need arise, but meanwhile we have a President with such solid leadership that it’s worth extending his mandate for more than the established single term.

A priority of the far Right’s strategy is eliminating the constitutional “articles set in stone” that prevent reelection. In the event of securing reelection, Juan Orlando Hernández would have the first option. The door is already being pried open for a Constituent Assembly or at least striking down these ironclad constitutional changes to allow reelection. Whether or not this Constituent Assembly is formed is now in the hands of the far Right.

At the same time they’re trying to turn the Liberal Party back into a force capable of winning the elections in November 2017. This option is based on the possible attrition of President Juan Orlando Hernández as well as the entire National Party due to their hardline policies on economic issues and their repressive and militaristic response to social demands, which could possibly lead to LIBRE coming out of those elections the victor. That unacceptable scenario makes regaining control of the badly split and weakened Liberal Party an imperative for the leaders of both traditional parties.

The gurus of the bipartite system don’t tolerate factors and actors that escape the mold of their political and economic model. With an oligarchic and kleptocratic identity, they’ve given clear signs of unwillingness to cede even a millimeter. And the term kleptocratic isn’t a gratuitous insult; they’ve earned their vocation as thieves over many decades of squandering state assets and diverting public funds into private accounts. A debate in search of an alternative model to the bipartite system based on a minimum consensus that might respond to the country’s chronic instability continues to be an extremely remote possibility.

What about the Left?

Pulling together the opposition needed if it’s to continue governing is a major headache for the elites of the bipartite system and they are investing energy and resources in that quest. Shouldn’t grassroots and leftwing sectors be devoting their efforts to consolidating a political opposition that will respond to the challenges they’re facing?

In the last four years the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team (ERIC), created as a social work of the Jesuits in the city of El Progreso, Honduras, in 1980, has conducted four public opinion polls to find out what society thinks about the country’s situation and the behavior of the different social, political and religious actors. All four surveys show that the population distrusts the political proposals of all parties, but particularly the two traditional ones. Over 80% of those polled perceive politicians, including party leaders and legislators, as deceitful and believe all judges, public prosecutors, police and executive branch officials lie. Nonetheless, asked who they think is most responsible for trying to find solutions to the precarious situation they’re living in, people either don’t mention actors associated with the grassroots movement, the National Popular Resistance Front and left leaders in general, or include them way down the list.

The Honduran Left is significantly distanced from the population’s daily reality. It’s true that the Left, represented by LIBRE, pulled almost a million votes in last year’s elections, but they aren’t hard votes or votes of affinity. They’re largely a no-confidence vote against the traditional parties and a vote of desperation in the face of a crisis with no seeming solution. In other words, they are cast to punish the bipartite system more than ideological or militant votes for the Left. According to the surveys of the last four years, people feel no more distrusting of the traditional political parties than distant from grassroots and leftwing leaders.

To escape from this bubble

The organized Left and grassroots sectors are oblivious to this distance. With resources aimed at bringing about transformations that will help the people most hurt by neoliberal policies, every organization, every union, perhaps without realizing it, ends up offering recipes for resolving the crisis as if they were the only possible solutions when in fact they’re nothing more than proposals that guarantee the survival of the organizations’ own members.

While they all strive to comply with their particular agenda for struggle, the surveys from these past four years all found that people’s daily lives continue to be shaped by television and by the churches that know how to reach down into their hearts. Political grassroots and civil society leaders often live in a bubble, believing that what they think is what all impoverished people in Honduras think. This bubble offers a lot of security, including economic, and above all “saves” them from discovering their mistake of being politically, ideologically, humanly and even spiritually distant from the daily reality of people living in poor urban neighborhoods and rural villages.

Our population’s level of social and political awareness is so fragile that most people don’t care who’s in government and who’s in the opposition; it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from. These people have serious food, security and employment problems to deal with every day, and the only thing that matters to them is that somebody solve these problems. The least of their worries is whether those who guarantee them food and security are an authoritarian dictatorial government or populist or leftwing leaders. It’s all the same to them.

We live in a country where the current circumstances, both objective and subjective, provide fertile ground for personalities with dictatorial features, strong men and arbitrary populists to flourish. Most of the Honduran population continues to be grounded in a profoundly conservative mentality. A Left that wants to put itself forward as the people’s opposition but is distant from those very people will continue to live comfortably in its bubble, churning out anti-neoliberal speeches. Breaking out of that bubble and eliminating its distance from what people feel, think, dream and suffer is a prerequisite to the Left achieving the status of an opposition that finally breaks the bipartite system.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s