For more than a century, Honduran politics has been formally dominated by two parties: the Liberals and the Nationals. The Partido Liberal was created first, in an effort to institutionalize the modernizing liberal reforms of Marco Aurelio Soto and Luis Bográn. The Partido Nacional was born as a splinter group of the Liberals in 1902 at the behest of Manuel Bonilla, who later became the party’s first president.
Since their inception, little has distinguished the two parties in terms of policy. For many years, the Nationals were linked closely to the military, but that was more an accident of circumstance than a true ideological stance, evidenced by the close cooperation of successive Liberal presidents Suazo Córdova and Azcona with the military in the 1980s.
For the most part, the parties have been vehicles for personal ambition, a fact never much disguised. Campaigns are invariably long on mudslinging and personal accusations and woefully short on political proposals.
Despite lacking clear ideological differences, each party has certain core areas of support—the Nationals in the rural departments of Copán, Lempira, Intibucá, and Gracias a Dios and in the southern departments of Valle and Choluteca, while the Liberals are more popular in the urban areas and the north coast. Political scientists have suggested that party allegiance is often merely passed down over generations, much like support for a favorite soccer club, rather than being a real assessment of the options.
Smaller parties have tried to break the grip of the big two, but with little success. Both the Christian Democrats (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras, PDCH) and the reformist Innovation and Unity Party (Partido de Innovación y Unidad, PINU) constituted themselves in the late 1960s and received an initial burst of support after the 1969 Soccer War. While both parties began as very critical of the two major parties, these days the PINU and PDCH are basically part of the system, generally allying with either the Nationals or Liberals. In the 2005 election, PDCH won four seats in Congress (out of 128) and PINU won two.
The only truly unique political party on the scene is the beleaguered Democratic Unification Party (Partido Unificación Democrática, PUD), comprising land-rights activists, leftists, and even a few ex-guerrillas. The PUD is particularly strong in conflictive areas like the Valle del Aguán and faces regular repression from landowners and ranchers. PUD mayoral candidate Carlos Escaleras looked likely to win the November 1997 election in Tocoa , but he was shot dead on October 18. Several other PUD members have been killed, and many more have been threatened into putting aside their activism to save their lives. In the most recent national election, PUD took four seats in Congress and can provide potentially important swing votes.