Honduras is facing its worst political crisis since its 2009 military coup. In protest of the general election held on November 26th, thousands of Hondurans took to the streets on November 30th to denounce electoral fraud and the violation of their sovereignty. The right-wing incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez (of the National Party) is accused by Hondurans and international monitoring bodies of rigging the elections to hold on to power. While early results gave the lead to his opponent, Salvador Nasralla—leader of the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship—official results were overturned and delayed until December 17th. Waves of mass protests erupted in the first weeks of December, defying a ten-day curfew imposed by the government on December 1st. Protesters violently clashed with armed forces, leaving at least 30 dead and 1,675 arrested by December 22nd according to Honduras National Human Rights Commission. The Honduran National Roundtable for Human Rights qualified Hernandez’ excessive use of force as state terrorism. The international community, led by the Organization of American States (OAS), has denounced electoral irregularities but is hesitant to criticize the repressive actions of a valuable geopolitical ally.
A chaotic vote-counting process
The electoral process was mired by several irregularities, undermining the legitimacy of Hernandez’s election. Polls closed at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than normal. More alarmingly, the TSE (Tribunal Supremo Electoral) — the electoral tribunal effectively controlled by Hernandez’s government– failed to issue early results. This is the first time since 1980, when Honduras transitioned from a dictatorial regime to a democracy, that the TSE has not released results as they came out but instead delayed the announcement for 9 hours. The next day the TSE gave Nasralla a 5 point lead (45.17% against 40.21% for Hernandez), including preliminary results for 57% of ballots. In the meantime, Hernandez and Nasralla signed an agreement to respect their opponent’s victory.
Announcements were paused again when the TSE claimed a computer glitch shut down their system for 5 hours. By the time the system was back up, Hernandez proclaimed his own victory. Nasralla refused to accept the results and condemned their agreement as a trap before claiming the presidency. Moreover, he urged his supporters to take to the streets, starting the wave of protests. On December 2nd, the first night of the curfew, thousands of Hondurans demonstrated in major cities, banging pots and pans. Protests continued in the following weeks despite the state of emergency, and their intensity was renewed after the final results were announced on December 17th. With this new wave of protests, a national strike was proclaimed. The streets of Honduras’ largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, were blockaded, and traffic between the two was interrupted. After a recount, the TSE gave Hernandez a 42.95% victory, leaving Nasralla behind with 41.42%. The OAS has demanded a second recount.
The results have not only been contested domestically but also by international observers from the OAS, the EU and the US embassy, who have pinpointed irregularities. They identified no computer issues that could explain the delays: all results were transmitted electronically from the polling stations as voting closed,with no technical difficulties. Among their concerns is an inexplicable sudden change in voting patterns during the time the system was down. An analysis by Georgetown University professor, Ifran Nooruddin, found that after 68% of the votes had been counted, the trend switched in favor of Hernandez, with late reporting of a higher turnout for Hernandez’s party.  For the OAS, this difference is too large to ignore and it has therefore demanded a recount.
Nevertheless, EU observers said that the opposition failed to show a significant difference between their party’s copies of the tallies and those counted by the TSE. The Trump administration encouraged a reform of the electoral system for a more transparent vote count but did recognize Hernandez’s victory–as did Canada and Mexico. The State Department also asserted that the government was making progress on the protection of human rights. The American support of Hernandez’s government can be explained by the latter’s help curbing drug trafficking and dissuading migrants from crossing the American border. According to Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras denounced a violation of the human rights of Hondurans: “That not only means that all votes should be counted correctly, but also that the Honduran authorities need to guarantee the right to peaceful protest” said J.M. Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
A deeper political and constitutional crisis
This electoral turmoil is inscribed in a deeper constitutional and political crisis. Hernandez’s will to renew his mandate was in itself very controversial, as running for a second term was until recently constitutionally prohibited to prevent autocrats from remaining in power. The National Party challenged the prohibition before the Supreme Court prior to Hernandez’s first election in 2013. It claimed that limiting the term was a violation of international human rights. In particular, the National Party cited a provision from the American Convention on Human Rights stating that political rights, such as running for office more than once, can only be limited under very specific circumstances. The Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation of the clause and allowed Hernandez to run for a second term. However, civil society is now seeking to invalidate this decision claiming that it represents a constitutional violation.
Hondurans went to the polls in a growing context of repression, corruption and violence which was met with mounting opposition to Hernandez’s government long before the electoral fiasco. The 2015 “outraged” movement, where thousands of Hondurans demonstrated against the government’s corruption, nepotism and embezzlement, is an emblematic example. Honduras protested against the appropriation of Social Security funds for Hernandez’ campaign and for the luxurious lifestyle of top officials. The embezzlement resulted in medicine shortages in hospitals and ultimately in the death of 3,000 patients.
Many similar grassroots opposition movements were created and later institutionalized as political parties. Both parties forming the Opposition Alliance led by Nasralla– Libre (center-left) and the anti-corruption PAC (right-wing) — emerged as such movements. But the government’s response has been to rule with an iron fist: the criminal code was reformed before the election to classify some protests as terrorist offenses, demonstrating students have often been attacked by the police and dissidents have been forcefully silenced… For example, four students were fatally shot in 2015 for participating in a demonstration against educational cuts. Similarly, in October 2017, an environmental and indigenous-rights activist was murdered and it appears that the government has deliberately slowed down the judicial processes to bring the culprits to justice.
The risk of rigged elections in Honduras not only underscores the urgency for a more transparent vote-counting system, but also highlights the depth of corruption and violent repression that Hondurans face as Hernandez’s government solidifies into an autocracy.
Article written by Vasiliki Malouchou Kanellopoulo
Lakhani, Nina and Heather Gies. “Honduras election: protesters clash with police as opposition cried foul”. The Guardian. November 30 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/01/honduras-election-protesters-clash-with-police-as-opposition-cries-foul
Malkin, Elisabeth. “Honduran President Declared Winner, but OAS Calls for New Election”. December 17 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/17/world/americas/honduran-presidential-election.html
Noorudin, Ifran. “Analysis for the Organization of American States”. December 17 2017. https://www.oas.org/fpdb/press/Nooruddin-Analysis-for-OAS-Honduras-2017.pdf
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