International Election Monitors in Honduras: Do They Ensure Clean Elections or Whitewash Fraud?

If there was a proven track record in which election monitoring carried sanctions against electoral fraud and guaranteed that the will of the people is expressed through elections, then who could argue that monitoring isn’t a good thing? But there is no such record. In all too many cases “political, economic, commercial, and even partisan interests” prevail.

Early on the morning of Sunday, December 1, people started gathering at the National Pedagogic University in Tegucigalpa with homemade signs to speak out against stealing of the presidential elections. This one reads “Stop the Fraud.” Photo from www.SOAW.orgAs an election observer and a leader of a 55-member election monitoring delegation organized by Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) and Marin Task Force on the Americas (MTA), my delegation observed all of the incidents of fraud reported by other delegations. We are member groups of the Honduras Solidarity Network (HSN). Combined, HSN groups had over 170 observers in 10 of Honduras’ 18 provinces; the largest international election monitoring group. The AfGJ/MTF report can be read at The Honduras Solidarity Network’s compilation of the reports of its seven member delegations will be available soon.

Boiled down, our observations amount to a conclusion that conditions did not exist for democratic elections in the first place and that election day was invalidated by massive fraud. Violence, land grabs, assassinations, judicial impunity, and lack of institutionality since the June 2009 coup doomed the election from the start. The conditions for outright fraud on election day were created by: threats that poor people who survive on the small World Bank-funded welfare payment would lose that income if the National Party didn’t win; removal from the voting lists due to criminal charges against peasant and indigenous dissenters to dams, mines and land grabs; outright vote buying; and the murders of three Libre party activists on election weekend.

Election Day fraud included buying of small party election table credentials which gave the National Party a majority of officials at many voting sites, opening the path to falsified vote tabulation. There was intimidation by National and Liberal Party thugs at voting centers, vote-buying, flawed voter lists, fraudulent tally sheets, and scanned tally sheets which arrived at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s Tegucigalpa vote counting center with different numbers than those scanned at the voting centers themselves. All these things happened, and most of them were observed by my delegation.

These things have been documented elsewhere. Instead I want to discuss the role of international election monitors, both solidarity monitors like our delegation, as well as the “big guys” like the European Union, Organization of American States, Carter Center, and US National Endowment for Democracy core groups the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

Alliance for Global Justice has not previously monitored elections since our founding group, Nicaragua Network, observed the 1990 presidential election in Nicaragua. In that election, international monitors became dupes to the US government narrative that the elections were “free and fair.” This, despite the fact that the US bought and paid for the united opposition, chose its candidate, Violeta Chamorro, wife of a crusading newspaper publisher assassinated by the Somoza dictatorship, and spent more on her campaign per Nicaraguan voter than Bush Sr. and Dukakis spent combined per US voter in the 1988 presidential election. In addition, Nicaraguans were tired of losing sons and daughters to the US-funded Contra War and being impoverished by the US economic war against the Revolution. Sure, Nicaraguans were able to vote as they wished, but the election itself was hardly “free and fair.”

Our conclusion is that most fraud takes place before Election Day and is invisible to international observers. For that reason, AfGJ sends observer delegations five or six months in advance of elections, as we have done twice in Nicaragua (2006 and 20011) and Venezuela (2006). We exposed US interference in the elections on all three occasions.

Another reason AfGJ hasn’t sent election observers before is because we believe that most US citizens don’t know the mechanics of our own elections and therefore could observe only fraud in its most blatant forms such as violence, intimidation, and theft of ballot boxes.

We decided to monitor Honduras’ 2013 election because we thought those blatant forms of fraud were likely to be committed. We thought that perhaps our presence could prevent some violence. Indeed, only three Libre party activists were murdered, none where observers were present. In fact, a van with 11 Libre election table officials was stopped in the wee hours of election day near Santa Rosa de Copan. The van’s tires were slashed and the officials were threatened and prevented from arriving at their poll sites by the 9:00am deadline. Did the fact that a van-load of our election monitors were in the town prevent those party officials from being murdered?

When you do human rights accompaniment, as we regularly do in Honduras, you never know whether people would have died had you not been there. But the possibility does create a strong argument for international accompaniment during an election, even if it does not necessarily follow that the accompaniers should be officially credentialed by the electoral authority as were ours last month.

So what did we, and the other solidarity election monitors, accomplish in Honduras? Maybe we saved some lives, and that itself is an important accomplishment. We documented an almost uncountable number of technical violations on Election Day and a lot of serious incidents of blatant fraud. We have and will continue to use that information as we struggle to change US policy toward Honduras. We’ll use it to argue that Honduras is a country without the rule of law where the violence is only exacerbated by US military and police aid and training, as well as to point out our government’s support for a violent oligarchy immune from justice for its crimes.

Nonetheless, our voices were drowned out in the corporate press by the official pronouncements of the EU, OAS, and the US ambassador, all of whom congratulated Honduras on the “transparency” of the electoral process and the professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Granted, the non-corporate press, such as Upside Down World, amplified our voices, but the alternative media has yet to achieve an audience large enough to influence the public debate. Honduras 2013 for me was Nicaragua 1990 all over again. I wouldn’t block AfGJ from organizing electoral observation delegations in the future, but I would not lead one myself, and I would argue against applying for official credentials. Much superior, I believe, is to return to our previous practice of sending delegations months in advance of an election and digging out the ways the US government is trying to manipulate the outcome.

The Big Guys

So if solidarity election monitoring is not effective, what about the organizations that the corporate press does pay attention to; the EU, OAS, Carter Center, National Endowment for Democracy? Do they make a difference, and if so, what kind of difference?

Election monitoring was rare before WWII and didn’t become practically a requirement until the end of the Cold War. Thus, my 1990 Nicaraguan experience shows that from the beginning, “free and fair” were what the US and Europe decided they were. Interestingly, the 1990 Nicaraguan election was the first “success” of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was created by Ronald Reagan “to do overtly what the CIA did covertly,” according to Alan Weinstein, an architect of the NED.

Both US political parties have their own core group in the NED: the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Most commonly, the IRI interferes in Latin American elections and the NDI interferes in Eastern Europe –  but they don’t limit themselves to those spheres. NDI put out an infamous “quick count” for the 2004 Venezuelan recall election on Hugo Chavez that was almost the mirror image opposite of the actual vote count. Had the recall referendum been close, NDI’s phony quick count would have been used to delegitimize Chavez’ victory. As it was, they just looked like the manipulators that they were. (The International Republican Institute’s other forms of meddling, such as its roles in Haiti of training armed thugs and in Nicaragua where they create civil society groups that then claim to be nonpartisan, have been documented elsewhere and are not the subject of this article.)

Prior to the Honduran election it was announced that NDI would have 100 election observers in the country. Our delegation did not run into any of them and there is no statement on their web page. Either they didn’t go, or the fact that a slim majority of Democrats in the House have signed letters to the State Department calling for changes in US policy toward Honduras may have caused them to keep their heads down after witnessing so much fraud.

Likewise, I can’t find an official report from the Organization of American States observer delegation, although there were statements applauding the “transparency” in the Honduran media election night and the next day. I was on a radio show with Mark Weisbrot on Dec. 9 and he stated that thus far only a few Latin American countries had officially recognized the Honduran election results. Perhaps the OAS is lying low as well.

The European Union has shown no such hesitancy. Its official statement heaped praise on the process. However, its endorsement of the “transparent” election was quickly undermined when one of its monitors held a press conference in the Tegucigalpa airport as the delegation was leaving the country. He criticized the official report and said the actual election monitors did not agree with the report written by the leadership. He said it resulted in a “heated exchange” but that the leadership refused to budge.

Upside Down Worl d ran an interview in which the election monitor, Leo Gabriel of Austria said, “EU missions have played a relevant role and have appropriately dealt with lack of transparency in electoral processes,” and that this was not the case in this election, where “political, economic, commercial, and even partisan interests prevailed.”

And that’s my problem with international election monitoring. If there was a proven track record in which election monitoring carried sanctions against electoral fraud and guaranteed that the will of the people is expressed through elections, then who could argue that monitoring isn’t a good thing? But there is no such record. In all too many cases “political, economic, commercial, and even partisan interests” prevail. For countries that the US and Europe see as allies or clients, the bar is so low as to be meaningless. For countries that the US and Europe see as adversaries, such as Venezuela or Ukraine, then no level of excellence is good enough. So, election monitoring becomes just one more tool of imperialism.

Countries are beginning to push back. Venezuela did not allow election monitors in its most recent presidential election, and some other Latin American countries have followed suit. Venezuela did allow “accompaniers” from groups that do not have a history of unbiased election monitoring. Countries in Latin America are beginning to recognize international election monitoring as a violation of their sovereignty and right to self-determination. As with democracy promotion itself, the US in particular has so abused the institution of international election monitoring as to make it no longer a tool to help achieve free and fair elections. That’s a shame.

Chuck Kaufman is the National Co-Coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice.