To outsiders, it seemed like an election glimpsed through Alice's looking glass. Everybody knew that the candidate with the most votes would not necessarily win. Indeed, President-elect José Azcona Hoyo last week set about forming a new government only after he had lost to Candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas, 42, by more than 200,000 votes. The reason for the topsy-turvy outcome: a decision by a government election commission to award the presidency to the leading candidate of the party that received the most votes in overall balloting for national and municipal offices. Although the Honduran constitution requires a President-elect to win a plurality of the votes, Azcona, 58, a civil engineer and a candidate of the Liberal Party, quickly claimed victory, promising a new government based on "honesty and austerity." Callejas' National Party has vowed to appeal the results to the Honduran Supreme Court.
Azcona's Liberals captured 49% of the 1.5 million votes cast, compared with 44% for the National Party, which is headed by Callejas, an economist who led the nine presidential contenders in votes. The election seemed to ensure that Honduras will maintain its steady if somewhat confusing effort to consolidate its fledgling democracy. When the new President takes office on Jan. 27, replacing outgoing President Roberto Suazo Córdova, it will mark the first time in nearly 60 years that power has been transferred peacefully from one civilian government to another. Still, the powerful Honduran military is likely to continue to involve itself in key policy matters.
The U.S., which this year provided Honduras with $204 million in economic and military aid, is confident that relations with its vital Central American ally will remain untroubled. At any given time, from 1,200 to 5,000 U.S. combat troops are on rotation in Honduras. Over the past three years, the two countries have conducted extensive joint military exercises aimed at deterring aggression by Nicaragua's Marxist-oriented Sandinista government. Honduras also serves as a base for 5,000 to 10,000 U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan contra rebels.
The new President will inherit a deeply troubled economy. The country's $1.8 billion foreign debt is expected to siphon off more than a quarter of this year's $927 million national budget in interest payments. With an average annual per capita income of less than $600 and unemployment at 25%, Honduras is one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere. Azcona has pledged to support a regional effort to renegotiate Latin America's soaring debts and seek more favorable trade relations with developed countries.