Honduras teeters on the edge of democracy.
In one of the most consequential elections in the Western Hemisphere, in one of Central America's poorest countries, Hondurans head to the polls Sunday to choose a new president, new lawmakers, new mayors and new city council members.
"The elections this Sunday, November 28th, definitely present our golden opportunity, the only one, to rescue democracy in this country," Clara López, a voter in the country's capital Tegucigalpa, told ABC News. "It's now or never."
Honduras' recent history of election-related violence has many on edge. Among them, President Joe Biden's administration will be watching for a peaceful election outcome, a possible new partner to work with, and any effect on migration issues to the southern U.S. border.
The State Department also deployed a top U.S. diplomat to Honduras this week, who told ABC News the U.S. is prepared to act if there are any irregularities in the election.
There are 11 candidates in total for the presidency, but the race has really come down to two: Tegucigalpa's mayor Nasry Asfura, who would extend the right-wing party's hold on power, but faces allegations of corruption; and Xiomara Castro, a popular former first lady who has united a left-wing coalition and could become Honduras's first female leader and Latin America's only current female head of state.
But tensions have risen across Honduras, with a recent spate of election-related violence, including assassinations of candidates. Looming large over the elections, too, are last year's back-to-back hurricanes and history's shadow — a 2009 coup that forced Castro's husband from power and the 2017 elections, riddled with irregularities, according to the Organization of American States, the region's bloc.
Despite the OAS' call for a new vote in 2017, presidential incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner, sparking protests that led to days of violent, deadly clashes.
Amid apparent concerns over the potential for more violence, the U.S. deployed the top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, to Honduras for a three-day trip. But after his meetings, including with both Castro and Asfura, Nichols expressed optimism that the country can hold free and fair elections.
"We will call things as we see them. We believe this is going to be a free and fair process that reflects the will of the Honduran people. If we see something that deviates from that — well, then we'll take the appropriate steps, but I'm confident that this is going to be a peaceful, free, fair election," Nichols told ABC News in an exclusive interview.
To many Hondurans, however, recent years have chased away any confidence. Just 30% of Hondurans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, according to Latinobarometro's 2021 report — the lowest in all of Latin America — while four-fifths of Hondurans believe the country is on the wrong path.
.@MaggieRulli has an in-depth report on Honduras and "a presidential election that some say is the country's last chance to prove democracy is still alive in one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere." https://t.co/vAkidmdYRJ pic.twitter.com/gebU3rYVFy
— ABC News Live (@ABCNewsLive) November 25, 2021
"The people are in a critical state," Salvador Nasralla, Castro's running mate and Hernández's opponent in 2017, told ABC News. "I do not dismiss the possibility of a civil war in the country."
In the 2017 elections, Nasralla was ahead in the polls and largely expected to win, making the Supreme Electoral Tribunal's declaration that Hernández won after a delayed count that much more suspicious to many Hondurans. But the Trump administration backed Hernández's claim to victory, dismissing concerns from the OAS and other international election observers about irregularities.
This time around, Nasralla, a popular former sportscaster, said he felt compelled to join Castro's ticket to try to ensure a left-wing victory.
"It wouldn't be winning if I subtracted votes from the opposition, and that would've made me a bad Honduran," he told ABC News in his only interview with an English-language outlet.
Castro herself has become a force in Honduran politics, leading the movement against the 2009 coup where the military deposed her husband Manuel Zelaya after he pushed a referendum to change the constitution and abolish its one-term limit.
Backed by her new liberal party, she has been ahead in the polls in recent weeks, especially after Nasralla's surprising endorsement.
But Asfura remains a potent opponent, boosted by his own party's hold on government and promises "to create jobs and opportunities so that people can bring food to their homes, health, and education," as he said in a recent rally.
Asfura's popularity comes despite allegations against him in the recent Pandora Papers which revealed he used offshore tax loopholes, and local officials accused him of embezzling funds from the capital city's municipal government.
They're not the first charges against the ruling National Party's leaders. Hernández was named by a U.S. federal court as a co-conspirator in a huge narcotics trafficking case that saw his brother, former congressman Tony Hernández, sentenced to life in prison. The president has denied wrongdoing and has not faced criminal charges.
Despite those allegations, the Biden administration has tried to work with Hernández and other Central American governments to stem migration from the region, which has surged during his presidency. Nearly 1.7 million migrants reached the southern U.S. border in fiscal year 2021, which covers October 2020 through September 2021, and one-fifth of them — 308,931 in total — were Honduran.
"Honduras doesn't guarantee its citizens a dignified life within its territory, and it forces them to flee," said López, the Tegucigalpa voter who is backing Castro's campaign.
During his own 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Biden pledged to invest $4 billion in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — sometimes called the Northern Triangle countries — to improve the quality of life, including the rule of law and countering corruption, and give their citizens reasons to stay in their communities.
While that money has started to flow, corrupt and increasingly power-grabbing political leaders in all three countries have made it difficult for the U.S. to find partners to work with.
Free and fair elections, a peaceful transfer of power and a new leadership partner in Honduras are important to Biden's agenda, particularly because if the situation deteriorates, even more Hondurans could flee in search of a better life to the north.
"Everything is at stake here. For the first time, you have a very clearly differentiated path that is being put forward by the proposals of both parties," said Sergio Bahr, a Honduran sociologist. "This election will define the direction in which the country goes in the next 10 to 20 years."
That's why the State Department deployed its top diplomat for the region to Honduras. Nichols, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Honduras' national electoral council, its chief of defense, and its attorney general, among others, saying he was assured they're taking "all measures necessary" to secure the election and prevent violence like 2017.
"We certainly will be looking to Honduran electoral authorities to carry out their responsibilities professionally and transparently, and they've assured their own people as well as the international community of the same," he told ABC News.
For voters like Ela Rubio, that's all that they want, she said.
"We want democracy. We want transparent elections," said Rubio, an Asfura supporter." We don't want to regress. We want to move forward. We want to keep going, and to show the world that not everything in Honduras is bad."
Honduras votes in elections critical to country's future and Biden's agenda originally appeared on abcnews.go.com