In an election widely observed by the international community, in a nation with a clear deficit of democracy, how was the National Party able to manufacture the results? Here’s an attempt, in five parts, to address that question.
The Honduran Presidential election is headed for a recount. The Director of the Honduran Electoral Tribunal, David Matamoros, made it so last week after opposition parties launched a barrage of complaints arguing that fraud, violence and inconsistencies marred the process and were significant enough to affect the final tally. Last Sunday, a massive march organized by the opposition LIBRE party and headed by their Presidential candidate cast a cloud over prior Tribunal declarations that National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez had “irreversibly” won. The acquiesce by Matamoros to opposition claims came even as US Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske and the European Union’s election delegation applauded the Honduran government for holding a “transparent” election.
Since the June 2009 coup that ousted former-President Manuel Zelaya from office, elections in Honduras have been about more than deciding which candidates win political office. For the post-coup political class, elections have also been about reestablishing the Honduras’s tarnished image on the international stage. The November 24 contest presented a massive challenge to the ruling National Party, since it was the first election in which the forces opposed to the coup ran candidates. As such, the election was a matchup between the two major political forces of the post-coup era: the ruling National Party and their blueblood candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez, who also led the Honduran Congress in its most recent session, and the nascent LIBRE party, which put its hopes in Xiomara Castro, the wife of the ousted former President Manuel Zelaya.
Given the rancor that existed between the two factions and the extreme marginalization of opposition voices in the post-coup period, some analysts questioned the Honduran government’s capacity to deliver anything more than a “demonstration election.”
Dana Frank, writing in The Nation, asked whether the US State Department was in the business of manufacturing “the illusion of democracy in Honduras so that Hernández can win and the United States can continue to pour tens of millions of dollars into the security forces in the name of the ‘war on drugs’?”
Frank’s question may have been posited hypothetically, but for international election observers, it pointed to an eerie truth.
A Real Election?
As election day approached, polls showed Ms. Castro with a firm lead, though the race appeared to be heating up, with the National Party gaining ground. Violence was also heating up: according to a report by Rights Action, 18 LIBRE candidates and activists were assassinated during the campaign. Meanwhile, candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez in his role as head of Congress, established a new military police force and that landed 1,000 troops in the streets, with 4,000 more on the way.
“The operations of the military police, especially in residential areas, will continue until we succeed,” army spokesman Colonel Jeremias Arevalo told Reuters in October.
Human rights activists, however, readily attest that the growing state security apparatus has only served to increase, rather than diminish, pre-election violence, making everyday Hondurans feel less secure than ever. Tarnished as its image is, the Honduran Army embarked on a parallel campaign to win back hearts and minds by launching joint medical care operations with US forces in the remote Western part of the country.
In spite of the killings and intimidation, when Hondurans lined up at the polls on Sunday November 24, they did so in good faith, hoping the election would mark the opening of a new political chapter, a return to constitutional order and greater democracy. However, as the evening’s initial results outlined a large lead for Hernandez, it was evident that something else was at play.
In an election widely observed by the international community, in a nation with a clear deficit of democracy, how was the National Party able to manufacture the results?
Here’s an attempt, in five parts, to address that question.
1) Vote buying. Many international observation teams noted widespread vote buying outside polling locations. The going rate seems to have been L500, or about US$25, though some observers noted payments as low as L100 (US $5). International observers reported camera flashes going off in voting booths, when voters snapped photos of ballots to prove who they were voting for. In Lepaera, Mayor Edgar Murillo cheerily greeted voters as he sat next to the urns where ballots were deposited. He was later seen handing 100 Lempira bills to ruling party supporters outside.
Some of the vote buying tactics utilized coercion. Honduras Solidarity Network delegates documented three different forms of manipulation utilizing the “bono” or “gift”, as the outright buying of votes is known. In one case, potential voters were told that their monthly welfare payments would be cut off if the National Party did not win the election. In a similar case, November payments were withheld, and recipients were told that a double payment would be made in December, again conditioned on a National Party victory.
2) Selling election table credentials. Honduran law mandates that the poll workers who run voting tables be drawn from diverse political parties, so each party is issued a credential to seat representatives at each of the country’s 16,000-plus voting tables. When a question arises, such as whether an ID is valid or a vote is properly marked, each table’s credentialed officers decide by majority vote. The National Party gamed the system by taking on representation for several small parties, most notably the Patriotic Alliance and the Christian Democrats, that did not have sufficient representation, thus allowing the National Party to dominate election table decisions. At many polling stations, the National Party was able to achieve unanimity among polling table officers. The resulting control of the polling stations allowed for ballot stuffing and dramatically swung ballot counts in favor of national party candidates. At some tables, according to official figures, the National Party won 97% of the votes, supposedly with 95% voter participation.
In a rare rejection of this form of fraud at table #15261 in Progreso, members voted to disqualify another member because she publicly shared that she was voting National, even as she was officially representing a different party.
3) Violence and Voter Intimidation. Before the election, the LIBRE party’s Xiomara Castro was the primary challenger to the coup government, putting LIBRE candidates and their supporters in the crosshairs of pre-election intimidation. When telejournalist Manuel Murillo – noted for his coverage of the military raid on Manuel Zelaya’s house on the morning of the coup— was killed in early November, the murder sent chills through the LIBRE campaign.
Murillo’s killing was only the most high profile in a rash of violence that continued through election day: On the eve of the election, Maria Amparo Pineda Eduarte and Julio Ramon Araujo Maradiaga from Cantarranas, Francisco Morazan, both of whom had told police they’d received multiple death threats, were ambushed and killed by masked gunmen as they returned from an electoral worker training.
In El Paraiso, Copan, a well known transit corridor for cocaine and other illicit drugs, fifty (50) voting table workers were held captive by armed, masked men and the tires of their vehicles were punctured while they gathered to embark to polling sites. They were held until 9:00 am, after which Honduran law disqualifies voting table workers from taking their positions. After the election, when HSN observers interviewed two of these workers, one of them received an anonymous phone call from a person who inquired, “You’re still in town? You’d better leave.”
Not surprisingly, votes in El Paraiso came out wildly altered toward the National Party. A close look at the tally sheets on the government website (here and here) makes clear that it was the absence of LIBRE party poll workers (combined with the credential trafficking mentioned above) that skewed the vote.
4) Media Campaign. The complicity of the state and corporate media proved another important factor in manufacturing the victory for the National Party. On Election Day, major TV news stations issued on-the-scene reports of calm polling stations and voters patiently waiting in long queues. The only anomalies reported were attributed to high turnout, reported to be as high as 70 percent. (This number later turned out to be vastly inflated. Turnout was about 60%, or about average.)
When the Honduras Electoral Tribunal announced the early results, the Tribunal’s president, David Matamoros, declared that the day was without incident, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Matamoros and most Honduran news outlets did not report the murder of Maria Amparo Pineda and Julio Ramon, the above-mentioned detention of poll workers in El Paraiso, or any other incident that played significantly upon voting outcomes.
5) Foreign support. The Honduran government’s allies abroad also played a coordinated role in the election outcome. At six p.m. on the day of the election, most serious election observers were still parsing data reports and connecting the dots from throughout the day. In some polling stations voters were still voting, since Honduran law allows voters in line as the polls close at 5 p.m. to cast their ballots. But this did not stop the US Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, from commending Honduras’s transparent electoral process before the day was over and before the results were in, when the TSE results gave JOH a 6 percent lead, implying the US ambassador’s tacit endorsement of the pending results. Later, the European Union would issue a similar declaration. The Organization of American states followed two days later stating, “The [OAS] Mission considers it important to emphasize that there were elements that contributed to the transparency of the process and, therefore, give reliability to the preliminary results reported so far by the TSE.”
So far, the Honduran Election Tribunal is still deciding how the recount will proceed. According to official LIBRE statements to the press, the announced recount should focus on a select set of 3,000+ voting tables where massive anomalies have been detected. Meanwhile, the attacks on LIBRE activists continue. Four LIBRE supporters have been killed since the election and another prominent Telejournalist has fled the country after receiving death threats.
Readers should encourage the US State Department to withhold comment on Honduran elections until the full recount, which will address many of the five points listed above, is completed.
Jason Wallach is the Coordinator of the San Francisco-based Center for Political Education. He was an accredited election observer with the “La Voz de los de abajo” delegation stationed in Progreso, Yoro, Honduras.