After a heavily contested election, Honduras has a new president-elect. The director of the Honduran Electoral Tribunal, David Matamoros, made it so on December 12 when he announced that conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez led the vote count and that his lead was “irreversible.” The bold announcement from Matamoros came after opposition parties launched a barrage of complaints arguing that fraud, violence, and inconsistencies had marred the electoral process significantly enough to affect the final tally.
Throngs of supporters of the LIBRE and Anti-Corruption parties marched in the streets to protest the results. After the late November election, popular pressure was intense enough that Matamoros himself stood awkwardly before cameras and announced a vote re-count. But, as so often happens in Honduras, political expediency overtook any pretense of fairness, and Matamoros returned a few days later to announce the final results—recount be damned. The deal was quickly sealed by congratulatory statements, delivered as if on cue, by OAS Chief Jose Manuel Insulza and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
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 Honduras’ 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 its 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 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, pointedly asked whether the U.S. 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 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 that put 1,000 armed 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 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 U.S. forces in the remote western part of the country.
In spite of the killings and intimidation, when Hondurans lined up at the polls, 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 whom they were voting for. In Lepaera, Mayor Edgar Murillo (left) 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. 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 percent of the votes, supposedly with 95-percent 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 journalist Manuel Murillo Varelo — 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 incident 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, 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 in favor of the National Party. A close look at the tally sheets on the government website 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 complicity. 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 percent, or about average.
When the Honduras Electoral Tribunal announced the early results, Tribunal leader David Matamoros declared that the day was without incident, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Neither Matamoros nor most Honduran news outlets reported the murders of Maria Amparo Pineda and Julio Ramon, the 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 6 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 U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske from commending Honduras’ “transparent” electoral process before the day was over and before all the results were in—when the preliminary results gave Hernandez a 6-percent lead, implying the U.S. ambassador’s tacit endorsement of the pending results. Later, the European Union issued a similar declaration. The Organization of American States followed two days later, praising the “transparency of the process” and the “reliability [of] the preliminary results.”
Since the November 24 polling, repression against LIBRE supporters has intensified. Five LIBRE supporters have been assassinated, and the son of another was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead in a Tegucigalpa ghetto. One prominent journalist had to flee the country after receiving death threats. Meanwhile, campesino leaders are predicting four years of intense militarization and bracing for the worst case scenario: increased attacks on their land tenure rights. They expect that the newly formed military police will define its role under a Hernandez presidency as defending the interests of multi-national agricultural corporations, while small farmers are left landless.
Given the repeated violations of human rights committed by the Honduran government and its security forces, U.S. legislators should withhold military aid and training until Honduras fully complies with the Leahy Law, which prohibits sending U.S. security assistance to governments that harbor known human rights abusers within their ranks. The United States has doled out $37 million in military and security aid to Honduras since the 2009 coup, and withholding that level of support could serve as a substantial signal that a healthy respect for human rights is—or should be—not an option but an obligation.