Electoral fraud in Honduras?

Credibility of election observation missions is at stake following attempts to legitimise a flawed electoral process.

Opposition supporters protested against the announced election results in Honduras [EPA]

Following Honduras’ November 24 presidential election, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the ruling National Party was declared the winner. Left-wing resistance movement leader, Xiomara Castro – candidate for the LIBRE party and wife of former President Zelaya who was ousted by military coup in 2009 – had led in the polls throughout most of her presidential campaign and declared electoral fraud following the announcement of Hernandez’s victory.

On December 1, thousands of people protested peacefully against the election result. Apparently bowing to public pressure, Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) [Es] announced a recount of the votes. There is growing doubt, however, that this would actually happen as the TSE claims members of the LIBRE Party never turned up. According to LIBRE Party officials, however, no recount was scheduled due to a disagreement over the method that would be used to ensure the count was valid.

The pre-election climate

As I documented in a previous article, the 2009 coup unleashed a wave of state repression and political violence that had been escalating dramatically in the lead up to the November election. This included the murder of journalists, violent repression of dissent, targeted assassination of LIBRE Party candidates and activists, the National Party’s illegal consolidation of power and the re-militarisation of Honduran state police for the first time since the death squad era of the 1980s.

In October members of the US Congress summed up the pre-election climate in Honduras in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to scrutinise the electoral process rather than prematurely recognising the result:

“Human right abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties…state security forces are taking on an increasingly central, and ominous role…We are particularly alarmed to learn that the ruling party, and its presidential candidate Mr. Juan Orlando Hernandez, now dominates all the key institutions of the government, including the country’s electoral authority and the military, which distributes the ballots – leaving scarce recourse for Honduran citizens should fraud be committed in the electoral processes.”

Just before election day, the TSE asked media outlets to sign up to a “Media Pact” in which they would essentially give up their right to contradict official announcements on electoral outcomes. On Election Day, Radio Globo, one of the few media outlets which refused to sign this pact, reported that the military had surrounded its transmitter and announced live on air that “They [the military] want to use this to pressure us and shut us up.”

With just 54 percent of the votes counted the TSE announced that Hernandez was in the lead and most of the Honduran press reported that he had won the election.

Soon after, US Ambassador Lisa Kubiske recognised the preliminary results stating that the election had been transparent. The Center for Constitutional Rights noted that Kubiske’s statements were “reminiscent of the 2009 election, where the U.S. rushed to validate and help push forward a process as it was being contested by Honduran civil society.”

Observers divided over electoral accounts

Much of the international press have based claims of transparency on reports issued by the election observation missions of the European Union, the Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States all of which concluded that the election was transparent. This was despite the fact that their own observers reported irregularities such as a lack of transparency in campaign financing and electoral lists which included dead people.

Hernandez lead ‘irreversible’ in Honduras

Other election observers were not so forgiving and many reported far more lengthy and serious lists of fraudulent behaviour, including bribery and vote buying; violation of the right to secret voting; pre-marked ballots; the militarisation of the electoral process and a lack of oversight in some voting centres causing the militarised police to take charge.  

Individual voting tables were to be staffed by representatives of all nine political parties. A TSE official, however, confirmed to a team of international observers that the National Party paid smaller parties for their position at these tables. Moreover, LIBRE Party representatives reported receiving death threats for refusing to sell their credentials. One observation team reported instances of violent attacks against electoral table workers.

The election observation delegation of the National Lawyers Guild took issue with the US government’s characterisation of the electoral process as transparent. They questioned the validity of the elections based on a number of witnessed irregularities and “a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation surrounding opposition members and observers.”

Raul Burbano, Program Director of Canadian NGO Common Frontiers, stated in an interview with the North American Congress on Latin America that his delegation “observed and documented serious and undeniable fraud.” He also reported having been denied entry to voting stations and that armed immigration officials raided the hotels where his delegation was staying threatening to expel observers.

Confrontation with state forces was also reported by Via Campesino, an international peasant movement whose delegation of observers from El Salvador was denied entry into Honduras. The final report of the Via Campesino international observation team concluded: “we consider the elections an ‘institutional fraud'”.

The observation report of the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ) and Marin Task Force on the Americas (MTA), compiled by a delegation of 55 North Americans including lawyers, academics and a sitting judge, presented evidence of widespread irregularities and fraud. Dale Sorenson of the MTA stated that the observations documented in this report “demonstrate a clear pattern of systematic undermining of the Honduran people’s right to a free and fair election”. Chuck Kaufman, National Co-Coordinator of the AFGJ, further noted that the speed at which the US Ambassador and some official delegations accepted the result and declared the election as a transparent process was “particularly disconcerting”. According to the report such declarations of transparency began to emerge even before accredited election observers were legally permitted to comment publicly on the day’s events.

Why declare a transparent election?

One member of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) team in Honduras, Austrian journalist Leo Gabriel, stated in an interview with Brazil’s Opera Mundi:

“We had the opportunity to observe the elections at the polling stations and we arrived at conclusions that stand in diametric opposition to the EU-EOM leadership, with regards to the supposed transparency in the voting and vote-counting processes… To speak of transparency after everything that happened last Sunday is a joke.”

When asked why the central EU-EOM team reported the election to be transparent, Gabriel replied that the stigma of the 2009 coup had slowed down progress on the Association Agreement signed by the European Union and the Central American region (EU-CA AA) and that presenting “a clean and transparent electoral process helps the European Union to clean up Honduras’ image around the world and set this commercial project into motion.”

If the contestation surrounding Honduras’ November election is not properly dealt with, the result could be further destabilisation and political unravelling in this already violence-ravaged Central American nation. Claims of transparency from foreign governments and international observers, in light of the clear irregularities that took place, can only serve to further aggravate the political situation and cast doubt over the future legitimacy of election observation missions. 

Jenny O’Connor is a graduate student at Oxford University specialising in political sociology and democracy in Latin America. Her website is www.jenny-oconnor.com.

Follow her on Twitter:  @JennyOCtweets