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Honduras president seeks second term despite constitutional ban

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 23, 2017

In this Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 photo, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez  speaks during his closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)
In this Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 photo, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks during his closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)
By Freddy Cuevas and Mark Stevenson Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Less than a decade ago, even talk of re-election was enough to get a Honduran president overthrown.

Now Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez appears likely to win a second term on Sunday as well as bolstering the strength of his conservative National Party across the board.

“Hernandez is not just trying to win presidential re-election, he’s trying to expand his power from top to bottom, including in the legislature and at the mayoral level,” said James Bosworth, the founder of Hxagon, a consulting firm that does predictive analysis in emerging markets.

Fears of just that sort of consolidation – but by leftist rivals – led Hernandez’s own party to back a military coup in 2009 against a president it accused of plotting to violate Honduras’ seemingly iron-clad constitutional ban on re-election.

The country’s highest court backed the 2009 ouster of Manuel Zelaya. But the current court – packed with Hernandez’ supporters – ruled in 2015 that the constitution could not prevent him from running again – outraging opposition leaders.

“This ruling was a betrayal of the country,” said union leader Carlos H. Reyes. “It is humiliating to live in a country where a dictatorship that answers to the oligarchy is trying to install itself.”

Some opposition leaders formed the leftist Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship precisely to oppose the re-election bid. The Alliance is running Salvador Nasralla, while the traditional Liberal Party is running Luis Zelaya, a middle-of-the-road candidate. There are another six candidates from tiny opposition parties, but the president remains the clear front-runner.

His popularity is based largely on a drop in violence in a country whose homicide rate was once among the world’s worst. The country’s National Autonomous University says the homicide rate has dropped to 59 per 100,000 from a dizzying high of 91.6 in 2011.

Still, Hondurans among the hemisphere’s poorest people, and even if killings have tapered off somewhat, street gang violence has frightened many people into trying to flee to the United States.

And corruption remains a major problem for Honduras, casting a shadow across Hernandez’s administration.

A convicted drug trafficker testified in a New York courtroom this year that he met with Hernandez’ brother Antonio to get the Central American country’s government to pay its debts to a company that the trafficker’s cartel used to launder money.

Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, ex-leader of the cartel known the Cachiros, testified that Antonio Hernandez asked him for a bribe in exchange for government contracts. The brother has denied that allegation.

And in September, the son of a former president from Hernandez’s party, Porfirio Lobo was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison after revealing his role in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy. Fabio Lobo, 46, pleaded guilty in May 2016, admitting he worked with drug traffickers and Honduran police to ship cocaine into the United States.

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