08/08/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

Political Patronage in Honduras: It's Feast or Famine

One of the main reasons the Liberal Party in Honduras appears amenable to exploring a loose alliance with other opposition political parties such as Libre and the PAC is that it wants to be able to more effectively pressure the central government, led by the National Party, to release funds -- "transferencias" -- it owes to municipal governments that it does not control -- those led by mayors who belong to either the Liberal, Libre, or PAC parties. When the president of the Executive Central Council of the Liberal Party (CCEPL), Mauricio Villeda, attended a gathering of the mayors in Comayagua on Sunday, he said, "We are not here to preach about politics, nor talk about candidates for the Presidency. We're here for the development of each of the municipalities. That is what brings us together."

Mr. Villeda criticized the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández for the "enormous political sectarianism" that it has caused. He pointed out that there are "threats of all kinds against those persons who do not kneel before the President of Honduras."

Mr. Villeda makes an excellent point, and he makes a good case for why Liberals, Libres, and PACs should unify, because clearly it is easier for the Nationalists to intimidate, abuse, or plain out ignore municipal governments when they are divided instead of belonging to a united front. It's infinitely tougher to divide and conquer when the opposition isn't divided. But let's be fair, the hardball play on the part of President Hernández and the Nationalists isn't anything new in Honduran politics; it's standard fare for both Nationalists and Liberals, and no doubt would be so if the central government were led by Libre or the PAC.

The idea that bullying, coercion, and blackmail are somehow unique to Mr. Hernández and his party is absurd. One need only look back at the last Liberal administration when President Manuel Zelaya refused to proceed with the transferencias to the mayors of Choluteca, La Ceiba, Olanchito, and Tegucigalpa -- Quintín Soriano, Milton Simón, Ramón Puerto, and Ricardo Álvarez respectively -- because they did not want to go along with his proposed "fourth ballot box" -- "cuarta urna" -- public opinion poll. It was Mr. Zelaya's insistence on proceeding with the controversial cuarta urna that ultimately led to the coup against him on June 28, 2009. Because the mayors wouldn't submit to his will, Mr. Zelaya simply withheld the transferencias from them.

It wasn't until the interim government of President Roberto Micheletti took over during the second half of 2009 that the payments were made: Lps 85 million ($4.2 million) to the municipalities of Choluteca, La Ceiba, and Tegucigalpa and more than Lps 500,000 ($25,000) to the municipality of Olanchito (Yoro).

The fact of the matter is that the Honduran political system is always rigged against the parties that are out of power. That is one of the reasons that those in power do all they can to milk the system as much as possible while they're in, because they know that when they're out they may get nothing. It's feast or famine. There does not exist a professional civil service in Honduras. It is still one based on patronage, and this is why there is so much corruption within the government, and ultimately within all of Honduran society. Mr. Villeda does a great service by highlighting the problem of patronage. But that problem is not confined to the National Party, by any means. It is a systemic one.