The Struggle of Electoral Democracy: the Elections of 1985

Honduras Table of Contents

The forced departure of Brigadier General Álvarez on March 31, 1984, and his succession by a group of officers who demonstrated less interest in political affairs than he had markedly changed the political situation prevailing in the country. President Suazo Córdova, previously restrained by his trepidations concerning lvarez, began to show signs of becoming a caudillo. Although the constitution forbade his reelection, Suazo Córdova conspired to nominate for the 1985 presidential elections Oscar Mejía Arellano, a fellow Rodista (the PLH faction founded by Modesto Rodas Alvarado). Every politician in Honduras recognized the octogenarian Mejía for what he was, namely someone who would perpetuate Suazo's control of the Presidential Palace. Nevertheless, Suazo Córdova went about promoting Mejía's candidacy with every power at his disposal.

The potential key to a Mejía victory lay in the makeup of the Supreme Court of Justice, which could (under terms of the 1981 constitution) decide an election in which each candidate failed to receive a clear majority. As 1985 began, the Supreme Court contained a firm majority of Suazo Córdova supporters. The leadership of the Congress, both PLH and PNH, recognized the self-serving scenario that Suazo Córdova had set up. Moreover, they realized that the constitution granted power to the legislature to remove Supreme Court justices for cause. The Congress proceeded to do just that when fifty-three of its eighty-two deputies voted on March 29, 1985, to replace five of nine justices because of their alleged corruption. Five new justices quickly took the oath of office.

During the debate over the justices's corruption, Suazo Córdova had fulminated both publicly and privately, threatening to declare a state of emergency and close the Congress if the five lost their seats on the court. Although he stopped short of fulfilling that threat, troops did surround the Congress building temporarily after the deputies announced their action. Furthermore, military police took into custody Ramón Valladares Soto, the new president of the Supreme Court. Arrests of the four new other justices followed. A lower court judge charged the five with treason. On April 1, the judge filed treason charges against fifty-three legislative deputies who had voted to replace the five justices. The proceedings against the fifty-three, if pursued to its culmination, threatened to result in the revocation of legislators' legal immunity from prosecution.

The Congress rapidly reacted to Suazo's counterattack. On April 3, 1985, the assembly passed by a forty-nine to twenty-nine vote a motion censuring the president for his actions. In another action more calculated to curb the president's power, the legislature passed a bill establishing guidelines for primary elections within political parties. Had such guidelines been in place previously, the entire governmental crisis might have been avoided. Not surprisingly, Suazo Córdova vetoed the bill almost two weeks later, the day after the Rodista faction had endorsed his choice, Mejía, as the official presidential candidate of the PLH.

The resolution of the crisis demonstrated how little Honduras had progressed from the days when the military had guided events either directly or indirectly. During the early April days of the dispute between Suazo Córdova and the Congress, Brigadier General López had publicly declared himself and the armed forces neutral. As events began to degenerate, however, the officer corps moved to reconcile the antagonists. At first, the military sought to resolve the dispute through informal contacts. When that failed, the armed forces convened direct negotiations between presidential and legislative representatives, with military arbiters. By April 21, the talks produced an agreement. The leaders of Congress rescinded their dismissal of the five justices and dropped their demand for primary elections. Supreme Court President Valladares received his freedom. In a complicated arrangement, it was agreed that candidates of all political factions could run for president. The winner of the election would be the faction that received the most votes within the party (PLH, PNH, or other) that received the most total votes. The arrangement conveniently ignored the provision of the constitution stating that the president must be the candidate who receives a simple majority of the popular vote. Publicly, all parties expressed approval of the outcome. Although threatened union strike action had influenced the negotiations, the strongest factor in their outcome had been pressure from the armed forces leadership.

The unorthodox nature of the agreed-upon electoral procedures delayed adoption of new regulations until late in November. By that time, four PLH candidates, three PNH candidates, and several other minor party candidates had filed. The campaign appeared to pit two PLH candidates--Mejía and San Pedro Sula engineer José Azcona Hoyo--against the PNH's Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero in a contest that saw the two PLH candidates criticize each other as much as, or more than, they did their opposition outside of their own party. The final vote count, announced on December 23, produced the result that the makeshift electoral regulations had made all but inevitable--a president who garnered less than a majority of the total popular vote. The declared winner, Azcona, boasted less than 30 percent of the vote, as opposed to Callejas's 44 percent. But because the combined total of PLH candidates equaled 54 percent, Azcona claimed the presidential sash. Callejas lodged a protest, but it was short-lived and probably represented less than a sincere effort to challenge the agreement brokered by the military.

Azcona faced multiple national and regional problems as his inauguration took place on January 27, 1986. The new president's inaugural address noted the country's many social problems, but promised "no magic formulas" to solve them. He also noted the growing national debt and promised to adhere to foreign policies guided by the principle of nonintervention. Azcona's prospects for a successful presidency appeared dim, partly because his party's bloc in the Congress was still splintered, unlike the more united PNH deputies on the other side of the aisle. Beyond such parochial concerns, the crisis in Central America still raged on, presenting a daunting prospect for any Honduran leader.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress