Researching the politics of development

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Breaking the rules, breaking the game: Ideas and protest in the shifting Honduran political settlement

7 October 2015
By Sarah Hunt.
One aspect of ESID’s novel approach to political settlements is to examine the role of ideas in shaping state capacity and elite commitment to inclusive development. Research I have just completed in Central America suggests that ideas have played a fundamental role shaping political dynamics. The Honduran case in particular demonstrates how ‘new Left’ ideas, associated with governments that have come to power across Latin America since the late 1990s, contributed to a dramatic collapse of the political settlement in a coup in 2009. The prospects for inclusive development are uncertain as familiar patterns of elite competition continue to dominate. 
Between 2006 and 2009 the Honduran political settlement was in part undermined by the ‘contagion effect’ of the new Left in the region. In my paper, I identify how new ideas and resources escalated the confrontations between the unpredictable Liberal President Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya Rosales and traditional economic elites, transgressing the long-standing ‘rules’ of political competition.  For example, increases in social spending were couched in populist language and fomented a grassroots movement beyond the clientelism of the two-party system. The interests of economic elites were directly threatened by an ad hoc alliance with Venezuela from 2008 to secure cheap oil imports. The dilution of US influence and the prospect of further cooperation resuscitated a Cold War mentality. Zelaya then broke with the conservative norms of Honduran politics with a belated attempt to bring about political change, framed in radical, transformative rhetoric. These moves cemented political opposition, and precipitated a coup that ousted Zelaya from power in 2009.
The coup has fundamentally changed the overall ‘game’ of politics in Honduras. The elite-brokered peace process was designed to return to ‘business as usual’ as rapidly as possible. With high concentration of economic and political power, elites continue to be well-placed to maintain power. But the deep weaknesses in state capacity are revealed by the protracted economic crisis and the alarming increases in violence and corruption since the 2009 political crisis. More significantly, I detected a shift in perceptions at the level of society that will be critical for determining the viability of the emerging political settlement.
The emergence of new political parties in the 2013 elections has demonstrated that mobilisation in the immediate aftermath of the coup was not an aberration, and there will be no simple return to the status quo. The current President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, seemed to be on a strong course to consolidate a new political project when in late April a new wave of social protests began over corruption scandals in the social security system. Massive marches have persisted over the summer, and are evidence of waning tolerance for the old norms of elite dominance. For now at least, protestors have forced elites to pay attention to societal demands.
The principal demand of protestors has been for an international court to deal with corruption and impunity. As argued in my paper, international influences will remain pivotal for shaping the outcomes of this Honduran ‘spring’ and state-society relations. The waning fortunes of the new Left in the Latin American region has diminished the weight of ‘new Left’ ideas and actors, shifting the focus firmly back to traditional power players, especially the United States. While this favours the familiar power holders in Honduran politics, the viability of the emerging settlement continues to be tested.