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Finale to Campaign of Folly, Intrigue : Hondurans to Vote Today for New Civilian President

Times Staff Writer

Citizens of Honduras will vote for a new civilian president today following a political campaign of folly and intrigue in which the outgoing president has figured prominently.

The election should result in the first transition of power from one civilian president to another in more than 60 years--but only after President Roberto Suazo Cordova managed to pit the constitution against electoral law, stir chaos in Congress and the Supreme Court and embarrass the U.S. Embassy.

In addition, Hondurans will go to the polls with some confusion as to how their votes will be counted.

“In Honduras, anything can happen except the logical,” explained a local political reporter.

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Much of the confusion stems from Suazo Cordova’s desperate attempts to hold on to power, according to political observers. Under the constitution, he cannot run for reelection.

U.S. Concern Over Election

The U.S. government, which considers Honduras its democratic ally in Central America, watched nervously as the campaign drew to a close while some observers still expressed concern that an elected president might not take office on inauguration day, Jan. 27.

The embassy unwittingly was drawn into the political fray when Suazo Cordova borrowed two U.S. helicopters earlier this month and flew them over an opposing party’s rally, dumping leaflets that portrayed the candidate as a public drunk.

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A diplomatic source confirmed the Nov. 11 incident but labeled it “a tempest in a teapot.”

Suazo Cordova adamantly denies the incident. In a full-page newspaper ad Saturday, he said he sent a letter of protest to U.S. Ambassador John A. Ferch and demanded to know the names of U.S. Embassy sources spreading the story. The embassy will not comment on the incident.

Nine candidates are vying for the presidency, including four from Suazo Cordova’s ruling Liberal Party, three from the opposing National Party and one each from the Christian Democratic Party and the Innovation and Unity Party.

Picture of Dead Founder

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Photographs of each candidate will appear on the ballot except for one--President Suazo Cordova’s hand-picked Liberal Party candidate, Oscar Mejia Arellano, who chose instead to use a picture of his party’s dead founder.

The front-runners in the race are Rafael Leonardo Callejas, 42, a conservative banker from the National Party, and Jose Azcona Hoyo, 58, a white-haired engineer from the ruling Liberal Party.

Callejas and Azcona have challenged their own party leadership as well as each other in a campaign in which personal political rivalries have far outweighed issues.

Throughout the election, Suazo Cordova’s followers tried to discredit Azcona, including charges that he was born in Spain and therefore was ineligible to run for president of Honduras. Azcona, whose parents were Spanish, says he was born in Honduras but has not produced a birth certificate.

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There has been much controversy during the campaign over how the winner would be selected. According to the Honduran constitution, the candidate with the most votes wins the election. But under the electoral law, the winner is the candidate with the most votes in the party with the most votes.

Callejas is expected to get more votes than any other candidate, but the Liberal Party, with Azcona in the lead, is expected to win more votes than Callejas’ National Party.

The National Election Tribunal has not said if it will follow the electoral law or the constitution in declaring the winner.

No matter who wins, some observers say they expect the decision to be contested in the Supreme Court. If the issue is not resolved by inauguration day, a council of ministers from the previous administration--Suazo Cordova’s--takes over the government, according to the constitution.

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Some observers believe that the powerful military will not let it get to that point.

The controversy over candidates and vote-counting began last spring, when Suazo Cordova was maneuvering to name the candidates for both the Liberal and National parties, the only two groups with a chance of winning. Suazo Cordova also controled the Supreme Court and the National Election Tribunal at the time.

Supreme Court President

In March, Congress suddenly replaced five Suazo Cordova-allied members of the Supreme Court, including the justice who has the swing vote on the National Election Tribunal, empowered to certify candidates. Suazo Cordova promptly threw the new president of the Supreme Court in jail, where he languished for several weeks.

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The army, meanwhile, got its loyal labor unions to threaten a general strike if Suazo Cordova did not allow primary elections to determine the presidential candidates.

An electoral pact finally was agreed upon allowing parties to run more than one candidate. Congress wrote an electoral law determining that the winner would come from the party with the most votes.

Most observers agree that the power of the 20,000-man military remains unquestioned and that the military could live with either of the leading candidates.

“The military is in the position that they will be able to negotiate with whoever wins,” said Manuel Gamero, director of the daily newspaper El Tiempo. “What they want, they get.”

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Added a National Party leader: “Power is not at stake here. The power will continue in the hands of the military.

‘Similar Politics’

“The electoral battle is between two parties with similar politics,” he said. “There will not be any transcendental changes.”

The issues that are key to U.S. policy interests in the region--the presence of U.S. troops on Honduran soil and of the U.S.-backed contras fighting the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua--are not being discussed.

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Both the leading candidates said in recent press conferences that they would not alter the relationship between Honduras and the United States. When asked if they would kick the contras out of the country, they both maintained the official denial that the contras operate from camps in Honduran territory but added that in any case, it is a military issue to be decided by the military.

Nearly 2 million of the country’s 4 million citizens are eligible to vote in today’s election, in which they also will elect 132 congressmen and 284 mayors.


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