President-elect Jose Azcona, who is to take office Monday, comes to power in a weak political position that leaves him vulnerable to pressure from the armed forces and the U.S. government, according to Honduran politicians and other analysts here.
Azcona faces an uphill battle to establish himself as a strong leader because he will control neither the Congress nor the Supreme Court, and because he did poorly in the Nov. 24 election. Another candidate won a plurality of the votes, and Azcona was named the victor only because of a quirk in the election rules.
In one important indication of Azcona's weakness, he already has backed off from a position he took in the campaign of opposing the presence in southern Honduras of Nicaraguan antigovernment guerrillas known as contras, or counterrevolutionaries. He still plans to try to arrange for them to move their bases across the border into Nicaragua. But his aides said he views that process as a gradual one and does not want a "confrontation" with the United States over the issue.
Both the Honduran armed forces and the U.S. government want this country to continue providing sanctuary to the contras. The rebels are not strong enough militarily to move their camps into Nicaragua, so Azcona's administration appears likely to continue the current policy of letting the contras stay while denying publicly that they are there, according to the Honduran politicians and other observers.
"I think it is safe to say that the new administration will probably follow the current course with regard to foreign policy," U.S. Ambassador John Ferch said in a speech last month to the Miami Council on Foreign Relations, although he did not refer specifically to the contra issue.
Regarding domestic policy, Azcona campaigned on a platform calling for improved programs in health care, education, land reform and employment. But his choices of Cabinet ministers were strongly criticized by politicians and other analysts of all political stripes. These sources said that Azcona had given too many positions to personal friends or potential political allies and that he yielded to pressure from the armed forces in his choice for the influential post of foreign minister.
"The Cabinet has not turned out well. He has formed a team more for reasons of politics than statesmanship," a prominent Honduran political figure who supported Azcona in the campaign, said.
In addition, Azcona's position in the legislature is shaky. His faction of the Liberal Party can be sure of only about 50 votes out of 134, while the opposition National Party has 63 seats. The remaining seats are divided among a rival Liberal faction and two small parties.
For the moment, Azcona has formed a coalition with the Nationalists in a deal that gave his Liberal faction the presidency of the Congress. The price was high, however, as the Nationalists gained control of the Supreme Court. The court plays an important role in Honduran politics, as it decides many issues related to the legality of party and electoral rules.
In addition, some of Azcona's Liberal supporters were dismayed that he reached an agreement with the Nationalists.
Azcona, who turns 57 Sunday, worked as a civil engineer before entering politics and formerly headed the Ministry of Communications, Public Works and Transport. He came in second in the election, far behind Nationalist Rafael Callejas. But the rules of the election provided for the presidency to go to the top candidate of the party that won the most votes, and all of the Liberal candidates together polled more votes than the Nationalists.
"Everybody remembers the results. He [Azcona] doesn't even start with the people behind him," a Nationalist Party leader said.
The public position of the U.S. Embassy here is much more optimistic about Azcona than are most Honduran politicians and other analysts. A senior U.S. diplomat here predicted in an interview that the Nationalists would offer "constructive" opposition and that Azcona could use the power of patronage to broaden his support.
In addition, the embassy is openly relieved to see the departure of President Roberto Suazo Cordova. The outgoing president staged a series of political manuevers this year, both before and after the election, in an effort to stay in office beyond the end of his four-year term.
The embassy, concerned that Suazo Cordova's activities threatened the democratic process, repeatedly stepped in with public declarations and private pressure to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
The United States wields considerable influence here. U.S. economic and military aid of more than $200 million in fiscal year 1985 was equal to more than a third of the government's estimated total revenues from domestic sources of $532 million. Both Honduran and U.S. sources said that Suazo Cordova might have succeeded in remaining president were it not for the embassy's role.
The U.S. government also was satisfied with indications that Azcona will permit resumption of deliveries of U.S. nonlethal aid to the contras, much of which has been blocked by Suazo Cordova in part because of the dispute over his political manuevering.
The expected resumption of such deliveries is an important sign that Azcona is likely to cooperate with U.S. foreign policy in Central America. But the president-elect's precise intentions regarding the contras remain somewhat murky, as his aides insist that he will seek somehow to have the rebels move their bases into Nicaraqua.
"Mechanisms should be sought to resolve the situation" regarding the contras, Jorge Maradiaga, an adviser to Azcona and a vice president of the Congress, said. "I wouldn't say there necessarily would be a confrontation [with the United States]. I believe that there are going to be some changes that will be arrived at after consideration and deliberation."
Azcona still says, as he did in the campaign, that a contra presence in Honduras is unconstitutional. Several sources predicted that he would force the contras to adopt a lower profile in Honduras, such as shutting down facilities near the capital.
But Azcona has been saying recently that he does not know whether there are contras in the country, and he has indicated that he would expel them only after Honduras signs a regional peace treaty that has been proposed by the mediating countries of the Contadora group.