Violent Intimidation and Alleged Fraud Mar Elections in Honduras
Fraud is the word on everyone’s lips today as Hondurans reel from the preliminary election results that were announced late Sunday.
Despite massive popular support for the Party of Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE), as well as polls and unofficial results that predicted LIBRE would win the election, the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that the conservative National Party presidential candidate, Juan Orlando HernÃ¡ndez, is winning with 34.27 percent of votes to LIBRE’s 28.67 percent.
At this point, although only 54 percent of votes have been counted and the final results have not been declared, political analysts have essentially called the election in favor of HernÃ¡ndez. HernÃ¡ndez already gave a victory speech.
Interestingly, so did Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, presidential candidate for LIBRE and the wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya. At about 9pm Castro revealed her own results, with numbers that were procured by LIBRE election observers, indicating that she had won the election by a margin of roughly 5 percent.
LIBRE has impressive grassroots support across the country. The party itself is a product of a large coalition born from post-coup era political organizing. The party’s promises of economic and political change, coupled with a push to reform the democratic structure in Honduras appeal to many, including some who previously were not political at all. It came as a great surprise to many when LIBRE fell behind in the official results.
LIBRE supporters may take the streets in protest of what they call blatantly fraudulent elections. It is unclear what legal process there is in Honduras to appeal the election results. LIBRE will now have to rely on its popular support and superior numbers to have any hope of overturning the official election results.
“The people are not, in any way, going to accept these results. It is evident that the people fell over to vote for Xiomara. The people want a change. They need a change,” said Susana, a passionate LIBRE party organizer who didn’t want to be identified by more than her first name for security reasons.
Specifics are still unknown about whether or not fraud occurred and how it happened.
Both the LIBRE party and several television stations including TV Globo reported their own numbers based on election observer's counts and exit polls. All of them had Castro leading by a significant margin. Their numbers match the polls that were conducted throughout 2013, in which Castro also held the lead.
The official numbers from TSE are very different and give the National Party a win over LIBRE by a large margin.
“What this tells us is that fraud has been very well organized—put together starting a long time ago,” said Susana. “The numbers that they are giving us directly from the electoral tables in the polls where the votes were given, they do not coincide at all with the percentages that the tribunal is releasing.”
There is much speculation about what happened. The initial electronic count should be announced November 25, after which the paper ballots will all be counted before the election of a candidate is officially announced.
Violence and Intimidation
While it is unclear how much blatant fraud occurred, if any, there have been many well-documented accounts of potentially fraudulent activities and intimidation across Honduras both on Election Day and in the week leading up to it.
In the department of CopÃ¡n, on Election Day, approximately 50 election observers from the LIBRE party were trapped inside their hotel by dozens of paramilitary forces surrounding the building and preventing them from arriving on time at their stations at the polls.
One report on the incident said that some of the paramilitaries threatened to burn the observers alive if they left the hotel. Eventually, the observers were able to call in support and get to the polls. No one was hurt but many were shaken by the incident. CopÃ¡n is in a region plagued by violent repression of social movements and campesinos.
On Friday, Nov. 22, around 10pm, a LIBRE office in the Kennedy neighborhood of Tegucigalpa was surrounded by military police, trapping four fearful organizers inside. Although the military police didn’t force entry and they left as soon as LIBRE supporters began to show up outside of the office, their presence was a clear attempt to intimidate LIBRE organizers.
In an example of violent repression, two LIBRE activists and supporters were killed in areas just outside of Tegucigalpa on the night before the elections. Details surrounding their deaths are still unclear but one report says they were both carrying official election cargo when they were shot and killed by masked men using high-caliber weapons. Both victims were involved in a struggle for land in the municipality of Cantarranas.
In total, including the two most recent deaths, at least 20 LIBRE supporters, activists and candidates have been killed since the party was formed only a few years ago.
In the past week an official "kill list" has surfaced in Honduras, containing the names of many activists around the country including some members of LIBRE. Gilberto Rios, a LIBRE candidate for National Assembly, is number 8 on the list. He became the candidate after the original candidate for his department, Erik Martinez Avila, was killed.
In several areas around the country international election observers were also detained or intimidated by the Honduran military police. In many cases observers were asked to produce passports and proof of legal entry to the country. According to the Honduras Solidarity Network:
“[On] November 23rd, at Hotel Suites Aurora in Tegucigalpa, several persons, some armed and dressed as civilians with ski masks and others wearing Immigration Authority t-shirts came to the hotel reception asking for passports for the people in the lobby, as well as asking for all International Observers to come to the lobby. They proceeded to ask the observers questions, look through their passports and, in some instances, took personal records.”
Military police also showed up at the transmission towers for several radio and TV stations in Tegucigalpa on the morning of Election Day. Although they did not take the stations off the air, their continued presence is making people worry that the stations could be cut off at any time. Traditionally, these stations have reported more critical and independent viewpoints. During the 2009 coup, their power was cut and they were unable to report.
There was an incredible level of militarization surrounding this election. The TSE took charge of 14,000 troops in preparation for Election Day. The troops were charged with transporting ballots to and from voting centers. Heavily armed soldiers stood at the entrances of every voting center, sometimes patting people down and creating an even greater atmosphere of intimidation. The fear was intensified by the memory of these same military forces being involved in the coup of 2009 and the violent repression that followed.
Inconsistencies in Voting Centers
Violence and intimidation weren’t the only problems in yesterday’s elections. Many inconsistencies were also reported.
On Friday, Nov. 22, the Center of Study for Democracy (CESPAD) released a report detailing 308 cases where deceased persons appeared on the lists of those registered to vote in the election. In contrast, CESPAD documented 44 cases of living people who were listed as dead and therefore unable to register to vote.
When CESPAD filed a complaint with the National Registry of People (NRP), they were told that the problems could not be resolved until two weeks after the elections.
The CESPAD report only covered a few districts near Tegucigalpa. Extrapolating from their findings, the organization said that there are possibly thousands of similar cases across the country. More reports of dead people on the list to vote came in on election day when family members showed up to vote and saw their deceased loved ones names on the list.
On Election Day, CESPAD officials reported that various table representatives at voting centers around the country had credentials that were either blank or had no picture, potentially indicating that these credentials were bought by a specific party. Other voting centers were refusing entry to international observers. In some cases LIBRE members were intimidated into voting for other parties, particularly in areas of the country with a presence of organized crime and drug trafficking.
As votes were coming in to be counted, there were unconfirmed reports that official ballots were not sent in to be counted as required. Instead, polling places were keeping the original ballot and sending in photocopies. Only the official ballot has a stamp of approval from all party observers.
“How do we accredit that a photocopy is a legal document of our party without a seal? We can’t,” said Mario Cepeda, electoral training coordinator for LIBRE.
Though most of these inconsistencies appeared to be small and seemingly insignificant, if repeated throughout many polling stations in Honduras, they could have had an impact on the final result.
Despite all of the inconsistencies and the atmosphere of intimidation, the TSE has maintained its position that the Honduran elections were free and fair.
Which way forward?
As the results stand now, HernÃ¡ndez of the National Party will be the next president of Honduras. He represents a continuation of the coup-government and of the policies currently in place in Honduras. The National Party platform includes continuing to increase militarization and neoliberal economic policies.
The National Party certainly has reason to commit fraud. Honduras is run by a small, oligarchic elite of which HernÃ¡ndez is a part. LIBRE threatens the political and economic status quo in Honduras, and thus threatens the bottom line of the elite class.
Desperate for change from the current system, many LIBRE supporters became tearful when they discussed the results released last night. It was a drastic pitfall from the excitement and hopeful nature of the campaign to the disappointment in the political system that continues to fail them. But the people of LIBRE are defiant and will not give up when they are sure they have won.
In contrast to the official line, some of the progressive television stations—in particular TV Globo—continued to proclaim throughout the night and into the morning, "Xiomara is the true president! LIBRE won these elections, let’s continue to defend them!"
Around midnight last night, Manuel Zelaya responded to the elections on behalf of the LIBRE party. He challenged the TSE’s official results saying: “We do not accept that result because we are against that result. We protest that result because in our statistics of the count that we have made, our balance, our consultations, in all we have done mathematically, Xiomara wins the presidency.”
Zelaya continued, “We’re going to defend the rights of the people, the right of sovereignty, the right to reform this country that is being lost precisely because of lack of transparency."
Zelaya will give a press conference November 25 at 11am. Until then, activists in LIBRE will wait to take the streets. With some worrying about violent repression, many talk of peaceful protest today.
“We do expect a large repression because of the strong reaction that the people are going to have,” said Susana. “But the people are ready, and the organizations have already said, the entire social movement, the National Front of Popular Resistance is going to react this time with a lot of strength—force—with a lot of will and a lot of courage because they are sure that the triumph belongs to LIBRE.”