This past Sunday, Hondurans voted in the most consequential election the troubled Central American nation has experienced in over a decade, as evidenced by a 68% participation rate. With about half of the votes counted, leftist LIBRE Party candidate Xiomara Castro is leading by 20 percentage points ahead of right-wing National Party candidate Nasry Asfura and more than 40 percentage points ahead of center-right Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal. While the election has not been called by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, it is safe to assume that Castro will be the first woman elected President of Honduras. Her election will be historic for other reasons as well. It will bring the century-long two-party system to a definitive end, reverse the 12-year hold on power by the National Party and deliver a victory for a true leftist party for the first time in one of the most conservative nations in Latin America. Despite these milestones, Castro’s administration will face challenges to its leftist agenda and ideology in a region where the left is struggling with democracy, the de facto collapse of Venezuela and other pressing issues.
The emergence of the left in Honduras as a political force goes back to the 2006 election of President Manuel Zelaya of the Liberal Party, who is also Castro’s husband. Even though Zelaya ran as a conservative, by 2007 he was publicly allying himself with Venezuelan leftist President Hugo Chavez, becoming the only president in Latin American history to do a right-to-left policy switch while in office. The political and economic elite opposed Zelaya, and when he attempted a referendum to change the constitution in 2009, Congress ousted him in a coup.
Three major developments ensued from the 2009 coup: (1) the consolidation of power by the National Party for the next decade, (2) the fracturing and decline of the Liberal Party and (3) most importantly, the rise of the leftist LIBRE Party. Its most visible leader was Castro, who unsuccessfully ran for President in 2013 and 2017. The LIBRE Party has grown so fast that in its inaugural election in 2013 it won 37 new seats in Congress and has since held more seats than the once mighty Liberal Party. This year, LIBRE won the mayoral election in the capital city and is expected to see large gains in Congress.
Overall, the political terrain at home is favorable for Castro’s leftist agenda and ideology as voters are looking for change in a nation hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, gang violence and a shrinking economy. Castro was even endorsed by the business community despite running as a so-called “democratic socialist.” However, there are challenges at home and abroad. Honduras is still overwhelmingly conservative and many are worried about Castro’s controversial proposals to legalize abortion under certain circumstances of rape and rewrite the constitution. Yet another proposal to formalize relations with mainland China has raised concern abroad since Honduras is part of only a handful of nations worldwide that recognize Taiwan’s independence. The U.S. and China will be paying close attention to the Castro administration, as both compete for influence in the region. It is important to note that historically the U.S. has favored right-wing presidents in Honduras, and the last time it dealt with a leftist president was Castro’s ousted husband.
The Honduran general election also comes at a point of crisis for the left in Latin America, with massive protests in communist Cuba, economic collapse in Venezuela and the triumph of the right in El Salvador under Nayib Bukele and in Guatemala under Alejandro Giammattei. The success (or failure) of the Castro administration will be key to the future of the left in Latin America as the region struggles to balance its agenda with democracy, the pandemic and its stance on China.