In what may be their country’s most significant elections in more than a decade, Hondurans will head to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president, a political contest that has been marred by violence and is being closely watched in Washington.
With issues like violent crime and poverty forcing an ever-increasing number of Hondurans to flee north, candidates are billing the race as a chance to alter the country’s destiny.
But with corruption seemingly ingrained in the highest levels of power, political analysts say the chances of truly transformative change are slim.
Still, a free and fair election in Honduras, despite its many problems, would be significant for Central America, offering a respite from the region’s antidemocratic turn. And the outcome could be consequential for the Biden administration.
Polls are showing a tight race. But if the opposition triumphs, Honduras would elect its first female president.
Here’s what else you need to know about Honduras’s presidential elections.
What’s at stake for Honduras, and the United States?
With poverty and violence continuing to plague daily life for most Hondurans, thousands of whom have fled to the United States, many in the country are desperate for change.
After nearly eight years under President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose administration has been marred by corruption allegations, the country’s two major parties are both pledging a clean break.
For the opposition, Sunday’s elections are a chance to regain power for the first time since 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup. The left-leaning coalition has vowed to halt the erosion of democratic norms under Mr. Hernández.
For the governing National Party, the elections represent a chance to re-establish some legitimacy following years of corrupt governance and widespread irregularities during the last election.
The elections could have far-reaching repercussions in Washington, where President Biden has so far been stymied in two of his most important foreign policy priorities: controlling migration from Central America and combating corruption there.
With the shadow of authoritarianism hanging over neighboring countries, including Nicaragua and El Salvador, a free and fair election could create a small beacon of democratic hope in the region.
Who is running?
Sunday’s contest pits a charismatic mayor from the capital, Tegucigalpa, against the wife of a former president who is running to become the country’s first female head of state.
Nasry Asfura, 63, more popularly known as Papi, which means “Daddy” in Spanish, is a former businessman who has been mayor of Tegucigalpa since 2014. He has also served in Honduras’s National Congress, representing the National Party.
Running under the slogan “Daddy Is Different,” Mr. Asfura is trying to set himself apart from President Hernández, a member of his party. But Mr. Asfura has also faced corruption allegations and been accused of embezzling public funds. The charges, which Mr. Asfura denies, have stalled in court.
Mr. Asfura has promised to create new jobs and improve the crippled Honduran economy, and his party accuses the opposition of being communists intent on radically transforming the country.
His opponent is Xiomara Castro, who is married to Manuel Zelaya, the former leftist president who was deposed in a 2009 military coup. In the wake of the ousting, Ms. Castro led a sustained protest movement. Ms. Castro, 62, became the leading opposition candidate after a number of political parties coalesced behind her in October.
Ms. Castro has promised to establish diplomatic relations with China, loosen Honduras’s restrictive abortion laws and improve the Honduran economy through, among other things, better managing the nation’s $13 billion debt.
Despite the governing party’s efforts to paint her as an ardent communist, Ms. Castro has won the endorsement of the Honduran business sector by bringing respected technocrats into her economic team, while also appealing to Mr. Zelaya’s more leftist supporters.
Why has this campaign been so deadly?
Political violence has long been a staple of Honduran elections, but this year has been particularly bloody, with almost 30 candidates, activists and their relatives killed in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election.
Deadly attacks on candidates and their supporters more than doubled in 2021 compared with the previous campaign period four years ago, according to the United Nations. According to the National Autonomous University of Honduras, there have been more than 60 cases of political violence this year. In one particularly egregious example, several men entered the home of Olivia Marcela Zúniga Cáceres, a congresswoman, in October and tried to asphyxiate her, the local news media reported.
Experts on electoral violence say that the proliferation of organized criminal groups, the lack of access to justice and the attacks on political rivals under the government of Mr. Hernández are partly to blame.
And while neither side of the political divide has been spared the violence, activists say that the attacks are more likely to benefit the incumbent party by creating a climate of fear that could keep voters at home.
Are Hondurans abroad participating?
Hondurans abroad, some 740,000 of whom live in the United States, will be watching the election closely, with the outcome likely to affect friends and family at home.
Hondurans in the United States are an important economic force back home, with billions of dollars in remittances accounting for some 20 percent of the Honduran economy. Many of those in the United States blame the current government for fomenting the violence, corruption and unemployment that have forced thousands to flee.
While Hondurans living overseas are eligible to vote, some in the United States have complained that the new identity cards required to vote by the Honduran government have been difficult to obtain.
In Honduras, too, some 300,000 people have yet to claim their new ID cards, according to local news media reports.
Fewer than 13,000 Hondurans in the United States registered for the IDs, which were supposed to have been delivered last week, according to a Honduran activist who spoke with The Times. The Honduran ambassador to the United States acknowledged flaws in the process but denied any political bias.
What can we expect on Sunday?
Voting begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. The electoral council is set to announce preliminary results three hours after the polls close, including an estimate of the final results.
With memories of violence and political protests during the 2017 elections still fresh in the minds of many Hondurans, there is widespread fear of unrest and further political instability after the election, and many businesses are shutting down this weekend.
Polls have shown the race growing increasingly tight, with both sides certain of victory. That makes it unlikely that either will concede early, further stoking fears of violence. The 2017 vote was also marred by inconsistencies, and the results remain widely questioned.
The country has since enacted several electoral reforms, but critics say the changes have been insufficient.