Thursday, March 15, 2012

US Media and Honduras: Violence and Elections

US news media coverage of other countries tends to be spotty and idiosyncratic.

For example, when CNN picked up the news about members of Congress calling on the Obama administration to put pressure on Porfirio Lobo Sosa over impunity for violence against Honduran citizens, the article reduces the issue to one thing: the horrific record of murders of journalists. Lost in translation: the actual well-informed breadth of the Congressional letter, whose first sentence reads "We are concerned with the grave human rights situation in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras and ask the State Department to take effective steps to address it". Where CNN selectively emphasizes the deaths of journalists, the Congress members actually present a comprehensive, shocking overview of the unchecked human rights situation:
human rights violations in Honduras where human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders and opposition activists are subject to death threats, attacks and extrajudicial executions....

In the Bajo Aguán region, forty-five people associated with peasant organizations working to resolve ongoing land disputes have been killed since September 2009, as well as seven security guards, a policeman, a journalist and his partner, and three other persons....

These cases have yet to be investigated and prosecuted, resulting in a climate of impunity. In September 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that while some arrest warrants have been issued, no one has been arrested or charged for these killings. While the legal system has failed to effectively prosecute perpetrators of extrajudicial executions, legal proceedings have been initiated against at least 162 small farmers and more than 80 were temporarily arrested, largely on charges of trespassing and theft of farm produce, between January 2010 and July 2011.

And then the US media moved on to the next story. What attracted their attention? The official recognition of a new political party in Honduras, Libre, led by Mel Zelaya.

Not that this isn't important news; anything that shakes up the political landscape in Honduras is worth attention. The trigger for the coverage is the certification of 62,000 signatures on the petitions to establish the new party. Honduran electoral regulations required 42,290 signatures.

Also drawing attention in US media coverage of Libre's official establishment is the fact that Xiomara Castro, wife of Zelaya, will be the party's presidential candidate in the next election in 2013. The Chicago Tribune article cites unnamed "opinion polls" that they say "have shown her running first or second". But like most US reporting on Honduran politics, what is missing here is all the context that would make sense of this isolated statement.

Early political polling in Honduras does suggest shifts in the electorate. In January, Dick Emanuelsson wrote about a poll on party preference by CESPAD (Centro de Estudios Para la Democracia). Honduran news media at the time (September 2011) found support for Xiomara Castro at 85% among supporters of the resistance. The apparent source of the Chicago Tribune's claim that Xiomara is "running first or second" likely is the poll's finding that among likely presidential candidates, Salvador Nasralla had support from 27.9% of respondents while Xiomara had 18% support

The main findings of CESPAD's 2011 polling, though, show a lack of enthusiasm about electoral politics. They note barely 7% of the population reported being very interested in participating in politics.

The main deterrent: unhappiness with the two traditional parties. CESPAD found that 66% of those they polled were prepared to change their traditional voting pattern, indicating a great shift away from the tradition of two party domination of Honduran elections. The high popularity of Nasralla and Xiomara reflects this: neither is a candidate of a traditional party.

Describing a "crisis of legitimacy", CESPAD found that most political figures, and those religious figures who had become involved in politics during and after the coup, had high negative assessments. Here, the report says that the highest any major political figure can manage is Porfirio Lobo Sosa (with an approval rating of 16), Xiomara (at 13.9), and Manuel Zelaya himself (at 12.1).

Remarkably, among the contenders for the presidential nomination of the Partido Nacional, only Oscar Alvarez (ex-Security Minister, and architect of mano dura in Honduras) was in positive territory, with a meager 6.5 approval rating. But the Partido Nacional was actually better off than the Liberal Party, whose declared candidates at the time were suffering from high negatives (-37.9 for Yani Rosenthal, and -55.9 for Edmundo Orellana). CESPAD notes that a majority (59%) of Liberal Party affiliates polled still recognize Manuel Zelaya as the leader of the party.

And that brings us to the real punchline of the Honduran political polling, which is lost in US media coverage that emphasizes Xiomara's candidacy and the founding of Libre solely in terms of the personal political career of Mel Zelaya. Libre's success in gaining legitimacy is part of a strong trend away from traditional two-party politics documented by CESPAD.

At the time-- before Libre had filed its signatures-- the Partido Nacional had the highest prospective support, but nowhere near a majority. In response to the question, "If the election were held today, for which of the following parties would you vote?" the PN polled 29.9%.

The Partido Liberal registered 24.1% in response to the same question, while the traditional small parties-- UD, DC, and PINU, all scarred by their stance during the coup and de facto regime, and all collaborating with Lobo Sosa in the current government to some extent-- together didn't manage to reach even 4% support.

Where are the rest of the voters? With the Partido Anticorrupción of Nasralla, described by the Chicago Tribune as a "sports commentator" who "quickly gained popularity thanks to his appearances on game shows, where he often appears with scantily clad models". The new PA polled 18.7% in the CESPAD tally.

Then there was the Frente Amplio de Resistencia, precursor to Libre, which, before being established, already was polling at 15.5%.

Oh, and one last point: in a footnote on these results, CESPAD wrote

The poll reveals that 93% of the sympathizers of the Partido Nacional would vote, today, for that party. Nonetheless, the "hardness" of this vote seems relative: 60% of those that today subscribe to the Partido Nacional could vote for another candidate or political party, if it had a better program or proposal.

Doesn't that seem like news? What if polling in the current Republican campaign showed that 60% of its voters said they would switch parties if someone else had a better platform? Do you suppose the news coverage would be solely about Mitt Romney being the heir apparent of his father's political legacy?

Oh wait. That is how the US media report US elections. Never mind.

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