Hondurans went to the polls in surprising numbers on Sunday, electing Porfirio Lobo, a wealthy rancher from the conservative National Party, to succeed former President Manuel Zelaya, who was arrested and turned out of office June 28. In voting for the 61-year-old Lobo, voters rejected Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos, who represented the party of both the ousted Zelaya and the interim government led by Roberto Micheletti. For many Honduran voters, Lobo's victory represents not only a break with the recent past but a triumph of the country's democratic system and its 27-year-old constitution.
"We won. Just by having the freedom to vote, we won," said a hotel desk clerk in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
"They tried to build a Berlin Wall and Honduras tore it down," said a Bolivian member of parliament on hand to observe the elections.
According to Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, those reactions reflected the "incredible excitement" of most voters. Wright, who skipped Thanksgiving in the United States to serve as an official international election observer in Honduras, told me, "Hondurans are not just electing a president. Their participation is a vote for freedom over Chavez-style socialism."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close friend of Zelaya, is widely believed to have exerted his authoritarian influence over the former Honduran president. Earlier this year, Zelaya sought a rewrite of the constitution that would have allowed him to remain in office and moved to call a nationwide referendum. Under the Honduran constitution only Congress can call a referendum. After the Honduran Supreme Court ruled the referendum illegal, and Zelaya refused to back down, the military, under orders from the court and with support of members of Zelaya's own party in Congress, moved to formally arrest him in June and flew him to Costa Rica. Zelaya currently is taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.
While concern over what many described as a coup mounted-not only from Chavez but also from the Obama administration, as well as the Organization of American States and the UN-Honduras' interim government fought back by following the constitution. Congress duly designated its president, Micheletti, as interim executive and declared that November elections would take place as scheduled. Neither Micheletti nor Zelaya were on the ballot.
Polls ran on Sunday throughout the country (as well as in six U.S. cities) without any reported irregularities. Police did clash with Zelaya supporters who tried to disrupt voting in San Pedro Sula, with teargas fired and some injuries. But at seven precincts visited by Wright, voter turnout was between 66 and 75 percent, she said. Most polling places she saw throughout the day had long lines, and the Supreme Election Tribunal extended voting by one hour. "This was important because Zelaya tried to get people to abstain," Wright said. Zelaya supporters took to CNN at one point to declare that only 20 percent of voters turned out, and Zelaya himself told CNN that "absenteeism triumphed" and "these elections don't correct the coup d'état."
Contrary to those statements, Lobo appeared to have won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Known by his supporters as "Pepe," Lobo lost to Zelaya in the 2005 election. He campaigned less against Zelaya this time and more on improving Honduras' ravaged economy by protecting investors, preserving factory jobs, and cutting crime.
But the country's constitutional crisis isn't over yet. On Wednesday Congress must vote on whether to allow Zelaya to complete his term, with Lobo not scheduled to officially take office until Jan. 27. And regional differences could widen. The United States has said it will endorse the results of fair elections, as have Peru, Panama, and Costa Rica. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Venezuela, and other leftist Latin governments are likely to refuse to recognize the result.
"We'd rather be isolated from the world than under Chavez for 10 years," said Marta Lorena de Casca, Honduras' deputy foreign minister.