Honduras’ controversial election remains in limbo, but the results not so much. As is evident across the region in recent years, tightly contested elections or controversial presidencies lead in one direction: towards "iron fist" crime control policies.
Whoever wins the presidency in Honduras will face stiff resistance. If President Juan Orlando Hernández wins the contentious election, he will face lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the results. International observers and opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla have raised concerns over fraud allegedly committed by Hernández’s National Party.
In fact, preliminary election results indicate that Nasralla may become Honduras’ next president. But should he be declared the winner, Nasralla will be facing an opposition-held congress that has supported Hernández’s hard-line security policies.
The unsteady footing with which either presidential hopeful will enter office makes it likely that hard-line security strategies, which produce short term results and build political cache, will continue.
In fact, recent examples from elsewhere in the region suggest that presidents often use iron fist policies to consolidate their political power when entering office with a weak mandate or when facing an opposition-held congress or other strong oppositional forces.
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For example, Brazilian President Michel Temer was not voted into office, but instead assumed the position following the controversial ousting of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff. Temer has faced low approval ratings amid mounting allegations of his involvement in criminal activities and a backdrop of economic and security crises. In response, Temer has pursued hard-line tactics such as military deployments to existing crime hot spots. These tactics have failed to produce long-term solutions but have helped Temer build his political capital by appearing “tough on crime” in the eyes of Brazilians who see few alternatives.
Felipe Calderón, who was Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012, also serves as a clear example of these dynamics. Calderón entered office with both a contentious victory and an opposition-held congress in place. Calderón launched Mexico’s war on drug cartels by going around congress and deploying the military in the fight against organized crime. Calderón’s aggressive approach was popular among most Mexicans, though it actually lead to increases in violence and crime throughout his presidency.
In El Salvador, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has used "iron fist" policies since his tight victory in the 2014 presidential elections. Police have even taken to extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members.
The fact is that militarized approaches to combating crime are gaining popularity across Latin America, as many citizens say they are losing faith in democracy amid corruption scandals and concerns over electoral tampering. And presidents who enter office with questionable legitimacy or strong opposition are likely to continue using hard-line tactics to build their political capital.
Honduras certainly provides politicians with plenty of justification to take this road. While homicides are down, they are still six to seven times the world average, and gang violence and large drug trafficking groups remain major security issues.
Winning the tight race amid allegations of fraud would likely lead Hernández to double down on his widely popular security measures to regain political points. Hernández centered much of his re-election campaign on recent security improvements, including the reduction in the homicide rate, which he attributes to the hard-line militarized approach he has taken against the country’s powerful gangs.
If Nasralla wins, it is unclear whether or not he would be as supportive of iron fist policies as his predecessor since he is a political neophyte. But lessons from the rest of the region show that his most expedient option to build his own political capital would be to simply apply his own form of hard-line security policies.