Alleged Fraud, Stacked Courts and All-Powerful Ruling Party: What I Witnessed During Honduras' Elections
Last week, I participated in a National Lawyers Guild delegation to Honduras to observe the critical presidential, congressional and mayoral elections in the country. The elections were the first since widely criticized contests were held in 2009, just a few months after Honduran soldiers kidnapped the democratically elected president and flew him out of the country.
As I walked out of the airport in Honduras, I was greeted with an all-too-familiar sight: a strip lined with Pizza Hut, Burger King and Church’s Chicken fast-food restaurants. It was evident that I had arrived in a foreign country where the U.S. has significant economic interests. There are 65 different international chains present in the country, and not a single Honduras-based chain, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. These chains are among the U.S. businesses that have benefited greatly from the U.S.-Central America free-trade agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2004.
The recent political strife in the country was clear just by looking at walls across the city. Everywhere you look, graffiti decried the coup d’Ã©tat and implored viewers to join the resistance movement to the coup. Higher up was a wide variety of campaign posters and billboards, with ruling National Party materials by far the most prevalent. Their campaign theme: “For a better life.”
The 2009 Coup and its Deadly Impact
Honduras' recent political crisis began when center-left President Manuel Zelaya was “arrested” in his pajamas by Honduran soldiers, on the orders of the Supreme Court, and removed from his country. The tiny economic elite detested Zelaya for policies such as a 40% raise of the minimum wage (impacting the profits of the massive garment and fast-food industries). Formally, they alleged he planned to change the constitution to allow for his indefinite re-election, but lacked any evidence of such a plan. As the economy performed well during the first three years of Zelaya’s tenure, powerful political and economic elites may have feared the perpetuation of his policies more than anything else. Poverty and extreme poverty rates decreased by 7.7 and 20.9 percent respectively during Zelaya’s truncated administration, according to a new study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
When the news broke, governments across the region decried the coup d’Ã©tat and expelled Honduras from the Organization of American States. The new Honduran regime shut down the few dissenting media outlets and harshly suppressed protests. Deaths of key Zelaya supporters, including activists, journalists and lawyers, sharply increased. When the regime scheduled elections just two months after the coup, the OAS, the EU and the Carter Center refused to send electoral observation missions due to the climate of repression.
Under these horrendous conditions, the anti-coup opposition boycotted the elections, allowing the right-wing National Party to consolidate control of the presidency and Congress. Abstention was high, and the regime was embarrassed when its voter turnout estimates were shown to be exaggerated. The regime eventually stated that just 50 percent of eligible Hondurans had voted. Over 11 percent of the votes were invalid, cast as a protest (and many argued even these low turnout numbers were inflated). Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of State commended the regime for an election it said met “international standards of fairness and transparency.” As Honduras does more than two thirds of its trade with the U.S., that support alone was enough to sustain the regime.
Since then, shocking repression has continued. More than 60 lawyers were murdered in Honduras since the coup, virtually all of them regime dissidents. Since May 2012, at least 18 activists from the anti-coup political party have been killed, with 15 others falling victim to armed attacks. No one has been convicted for any of these murders, and serious investigations are rare.
In addition, a quieter form of repression has gripped the country. Already the poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, poverty surged 13.2% and extreme poverty increased 26.3% between 2010 and 2012, according to a Center for Economic and Policy Research study. President Pepe Lobo’s popularity plunged as violence and unemployment surged. It was during the tenure of the National Party's Lobo that Honduras claimed the world’s highest murder rate, at over 85 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (Chicago has about 18 per 100,000). The number of people working full-time but not receiving the minimum wage has gone from 28.8 percent of the labor force in 2008 to 43.6 percent in 2012. Underemployment increased from 6.8 percent in 2008 to 14.1 percent in 2012.
The National Party pushed forward with far-right dream projects such as laissez faire “model cities.” When four Supreme Court justices declared the plans to be unconstitutional, the Congress, led by Juan Orlando Hernandez, defied the law and replaced those justices with National Party loyalists.
The 2013 Election and Observer Mission
Meanwhile, a dedicated resistance movement forged after the coup launched its own political party, the Freedom and Refoundation Party, or LIBRE. Its candidate would be Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the toppled president.
Although the post-coup National Party government had presided over horrific spikes in violence and poverty, president of the Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez launched his bid for the presidency. Despite backing from the country’s tiny cadre of economic elites and their dominant media holdings, polls indicated he was trailing LIBRE’s Castro.
The National Lawyers Guild sent 17 delegates to observe the election, as part of a larger group of around 150 Americans who participated as part of the Honduras Solidarity Network. We met with Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) officials, opposition figures, lawyers, judges, and activists facing repression. We quickly learned that all of the TSE directors were National Party supporters. Later, the chief prosecutor for human rights told us that both she and the head prosecutor tasked with “electoral crimes” (i.e. election fraud) were National Party members. We were unable to find a single government institution in the country that was not fully controlled by the National Party.
Over 5 million Hondurans were said to be registered for the November 24 elections. The design of the system was that each party would receive credentials permitting one member of each party to participate in the management of each polling station nationwide. There were four parties that had a significant following in the country: the National Party and Liberal Party (the two traditional parties which had traded off power for most of the century), and two new parties, LIBRE and the Anti-Corruption Party. Five other small parties were also slated to receive credentials, despite the lack of any indication that they had a sufficient following to provide volunteers at the more than 5,000 polling stations nationwide.
Votes are cast by making a mark on each of three ballots for president, Congress and mayor. The ballots are signed by the president and secretary of the polling station, and then they are placed in their respective box. At the end of the day, the votes were to be counted by the party representatives in a public process and totaled on a form which is then scanned and sent to the central TSE location at one of the only high-end hotels in Tegucigalpa. Each party would also receive a copy of the scanned acta.
On the day of the elections, Sunday, Nov. 24, observers from North America split up and covered some of the largest polling stations in the country, some serving more than 10,000 voters each in hillside slums of the capital.
I was assigned the impoverished barrio of El Reparto. The situation was initially chaotic, as polling station members attempted to set up their stations for the first time. A lack of sufficient training and preparation was evident. In El Reparto and other poor areas, polling stations were often grossly inadequate schools that were set up like labyrinths. They were extremely difficult for most to navigate, and virtually impossible for the disabled and elderly.
The lines to vote grew quickly, with voters waiting up to three hours in the sun to cast their votes. The atmosphere was festive, despite the presence of uniformed soldiers with M-16 machine guns. One LIBRE supporter told me, “We’ll wait as long as necessary to vote!”
Other than the lines, the act of voting went relatively smoothly, from what we could see. Vote tabulation, however, was another story. While it was supposed to be a public process, it went into the early morning at most places, meaning that many congressional and mayoral vote counts were largely done without any public witnesses. In addition, this meant that volunteer poll staff worked for more than 18 hours.
When we arrived at TSE’s luxury hotel headquarters, the process became more confusing. I entered the vote tabulation room, which consisted of 350 computers, staffed by what looked to be college-age students. On their screens was a list of numbers, which were supposedly randomized vote tallies sent over the scanners. I noticed that no observers were present during this step. I later learned that the TSE had rejected calls for parties to examine the software used in this process, claiming it would be a violation of the company’s intellectual property rights.
Minutes later, we rushed to the press center in the hotel, where the four TSE directors announced that, with 24% of the actas reporting, National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez had an over 6% lead over LIBRE’s Xiomara Castro. With many votes left to count, including those from rural LIBRE strongholds, we continued to wait.
Just a few hours later, Juan Orlando Hernandez took to the stage to claim victory, despite insistence by the TSE that the “preliminary results […] do not show any tendency or declare any winner.” Much of the Honduran press also began naming Hernandez the winner. Hernandez tweeted that he received congratulatory calls from the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Panama, in addition to a concession from the candidate of the Liberal Party (the party that worked hand-in-hand with the National Party to depose Zelaya in 2009). U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, declared that the electoral process was “transparent,” but she called on all parties to wait for final results to be announced.
LIBRE’s Xiomara Castro appeared in the media to state that, according to exit polling, she had won the elections, and that the numbers being revealed by the TSE were the product of fraud. The following day, the TSE declared Hernandez’s lead to be “irreversible.”
Election Irregularities and Fraud Allegations
In the days before the press conference, we talked with other observer groups and Honduran citizens. Repeatedly, Hondurans insisted that the election had been stolen, nicknaming the president-elect Juan Robando (rhyming his name with the word for stealing).
Observer groups have taken varying positions on the elections, but all have cited a wide variety of fraudulent and other manipulative tactics and incidents.
Government-invited observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union said the process was “transparent” and that they “had confidence in the results.” They insisted that those with fraud allegations should present them to the National Party controlled TSE.
The leader of the OAS mission, however, commented that the distribution of polling station credentials to members of political parties was “not supported by any international standard.” The EU found “serious indications” that the credentials were being bought and sold. This was widely reported to our observers as well. The credentials are important as they allow each party to have a voice in the voting process and tabulation of votes. The five smallest parties, however, had fewer votes nationwide than there were polling stations, making it impossible for them to staff the polling stations. The result was that an unknown large number of credentials designated for these parties were in fact sold to larger parties, with most reports pointing toward the well-funded National Party.
As a result of this deeply problematic system, it is impossible to know exactly how many polling stations had disproportionate representation by the National Party, allowing them to exert control over the voting and tabulation process. The mayoral candidate for the Democratic Unity Party in the city of DanlÃ told me that the credentials he was supposed to receive to distribute to his volunteers never arrived.
Allegations of inaccuracies in the voter rolls were frequently reported to our observers. Deceased individuals, some for decades, were still listed on voter rolls as eligible to vote, and we heard reports that votes were cast in their names. Alternatively, many voters who were eligible did not find their names on the required lists (or were told they had been marked as deceased). These voters, again of an unknown number nationwide, were not permitted to vote, and have no recourse.
We received numerous accounts of voters being induced to vote for the National Party in exchange for food, money, jobs, or other benefits. We also heard accounts that the National Party was distributing its “La Cachureca” discount card outside of polling places. The card provides people who register with the National Party discounts for cell phone use, medical care and other needs. We also have received reports of a government program that is supposed to provide aid to impoverished Hondurans being manipulated. One woman announced that she had received one of these checks before the election that was dated the Tuesday after the election; she was told there would only be funds to cash it if the National Party won.
The European Union noted in a separate report that there was a “clear imbalance of coverage in the media of the different parties” as the National Party had “greater resources to purchase advertising.”
LIBRE Fraud Allegations and Call for Protest
On Friday, Nov. 29, LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro held a press conference where she declared that her victory was “stolen by those who have turned the electoral system into a farce, by falsifying voting records and adulterating electoral results.” She said that her party will “demonstrate that triumph of LIBRE was the will of the Honduran people,” demanding that the TSE permit LIBRE to review the 16,135 original voting records, and that the TSE conduct a public scrutiny of every one of those polling places where there were inconsistencies. She called on her supporters to protest, stating that “we will defeat them in the streets—we already beat them at the polls.”
A representative of her party then read from their executive report on the election, which cited a long list of irregularities and inconsistencies in the results. Taken together, LIBRE declared that the issues could have swung the election to the National Party.
A national rally against election fraud was called for Sunday, December 1. Students who protested the election earlier in the week were met with water cannons and tear gas.
Ruling Party Control of Process Damages Credibility
Whether all of these fraud and voter manipulation allegations would have skewed the result of the election, we may never know. Some believe it was Hernandez’s law and order pitch that pushed him over the top. Legally permitted imbalances, such as major funding advantages and media bias in favor of Hernandez may have played a larger role than the wide variety of issues at the polls.
But in any case, the National Party is solely responsible for creating widespread doubts about the process by insisting on placing its supporters in control during every significant step of the process, including post-election appeals and investigations. Its stacking of the courts and prosecutors’ offices does not indicate that it supports the system of checks and balances espoused by its main backer, the United States. By failing to establish a system that all parties could trust, Juan Orlando and his National Party have destroyed any chance that this election could be a step forward for Honduran democracy. Any bloody repression of peaceful activists will demonstrate unequivocally to the world that they are indeed autocrats hiding behind a faÃ§ade of democracy.