Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Roots and branches of Honduras' electoral crisis

By Rosemary Joyce

Observers from the Organization of American States have issued a preliminary report on the election that took place November 26, and is still unsettled. Even the short English summary exudes alarm about a profoundly flawed process:

"The tight margin of the results, and the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results."

The rest of the summary is fairly diplomatic and thus opaque, but still states "the Mission observed with concern the stage of processing of votes and dissemination of results."

The actual report is rather more blunt, and worth citing at some length:

On election night citizens received no official information from the TSE [Tribunal Supremo Electoral, the electoral vote counting agency] on the votes tallied until 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Monday, November 27... The Mission recommended to the TSE that it publish the results thus far... [electoral officials] announced the votes obtained by each candidate with 57.18% of the votes counted. At that point in time, the Partido Nacional [National Party] candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández had 761,872 votes (40.21%) while the candidate for Alianza de Oposición Contra la Dictadura [Alliance in Opposition Aganist Dictatorship] had 855,847 votes (45.17%).

On Monday, November 27, the TSE began to receive the electoral cases coming from various parts of the country ... observers noted that there were no pre-established protocols for the reception and unloading of materials....The observers also ascertained that the order in which the cases were processed and unloaded changed: first it was in order of arrival, then other undisclosed criteria were used....

The Mission filed a written request with the TSE for the inventory of cases processed in which the final voting record (acta de cierre) or other sensitive material was missing and for the report on minutes scanned [in the capital city], as well as all the images of the minutes being scanned during reception of the cases in INFOP and the plan for unloading the trucks and delivering the cases. Unfortunately, the Mission has not received that information from the Tribunal.

There's a lot more. The report also noted vote-buying witnessed in three departments (states), political interference in the privacy of voting, confusion about the closing time for voting leading to people waiting in line to vote when the polling place closed in 8% of the polling places.

The problems documented in the OAS report contributed to a situation in which there is no trust in the electoral agency, which has about three weeks to announce a winner in a race with an official 55,000 vote difference that two of the three main parties in the election doubt reflects actual voting.

These doubts received some support from a statistical analysis by The Economist, that concluded the chances would be "close to zero" for an observed shift between early vote trends and those that followed more than a day of unexplained discontinuity in vote counting.

President Juan Orlando Hernández claimed that the early voting was from urban areas (where opposition to his candidacy is strong) and later counted voting was rural. The Economist calculated percentage shifts in individual municipalities, the lowest level of localizable reporting in the Honduran election, and showed large shifts in voting occurred within some local jurisdictions-- 3.8% of the vote on average was lost by the opposition party after the unexplained delay in vote counting.

The Economist considered whether there was variation in the local population within municipalities that would support something like Hernández's explanation of the shifts in voting over time within individual municipalities. In addition to statistical assessments of other data, they asked me to look at their results; what I saw was sharp swings in voting behavior in places that were rural and uniform in population.

This brings us to the present: thousands of Hondurans protesting the outcome of the election, although largely peaceful, found themselves confined by suspension of constitutional rights and a curfew. After initially following orders to dislodge protesters, national police returned to their barracks, saying they would not intervene in the political crisis anymore.

What led to this impasse?

In a very real way, this election is rooted in the 2009 coup d'etat that removed President José Manuel Zelaya. In an election in 2009 carried out under the regime installed during the coup, marked by violence, nation-wide curfews, and vote boycotts, the Partido Nacional won the presidency. In the following four years, the Partido Nacional controlled the Congress as well. The head of Congress was Juan Orlando Hernández, who went on to run as his party's presidential candidate in 2013-- another election where questions were raised by the voting process. Analyses showed suspicious voting favoring Hernández in drug-cartel controlled areas.

After the election of 2013, an illegal scheme that siphoned money off a social service agency was uncovered. Some of the funds went to support the election campaign of the president. As further details spilled out, popular marches calling for the president to resign gained adherents. Included were the leaders of the two opposition parties that had split 42% of the vote in 2013, a larger proportion then went to the Partido Nacional.

It was these two parties, LIBRE and the Anti-corruption Party, that launched the Alianza in Opposition to the Dictatorship that now is deadlocked with the Partido Nacional in the presidential race.

In a move unprecedented since Honduras adopted its modern constitution in the early 1980s, in this election the sitting president is a candidate for re-election. Resistance to presidential re-election was promoted in 2009 as a pretext for the coup, misrepresenting a non-binding survey asking citizens if they wanted to vote on the possibility of a constitutional convention as a move toward re-election.

While still in congress, Hernández oversaw the removal of a group of Supreme Court justices and their replacement with others aligned with him. Once in office, he watched as proxies brought cases to the Supreme Court that resulted in setting aside the constitutional ban on re-election, and then declared himself a candidate for president.

The OAS report notes that while the Supreme Court cleared the way for re-election, that didn't create a legal framework for how re-election would work:

The judgment handed down by the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Justice gave rise to an irregular state of affairs in the legal system... a law regulating presidential re-election has not been passed either... Therefore, as things stand, the possibility is being left open of a President perpetuating himself in office, indefinitely.

Or maybe not. It turns out that the rhetoric of 2009 shaped Honduran popular opinion. Reelection is unpopular. So added to having won the presidency in 2013 with only 37% of the vote, Hernández faced an election in which almost two-thirds of the country did not view his quest for reelection as legitimate.

In this environment, increasing his vote over 2013 might have seemed unlikely. But that is what the TSE says happened. Unfortunately, its behavior in the 2013 election led public confidence in the TSE to decline to 42%. As a result, there is widespread skepticism about its processes and pronouncements. Nothing in the OAS report will strengthen public belief in the agency.

While the OAS report makes a number of good recommendations for the next election, Honduras faces the challenge of resolving the current election, in which more people voted against the incumbent president than voted for him. Because Honduras doesn't require a majority to win, the TSE could declare a victory, following its assertion that Hernández has a 55,000 vote lead.

What is questionable is how governable the country would be if that were to happen. Today, the Alianza reiterated its requirements to accept a final outcome, ranging from a recount to information about the computer system, which it is claimed went offline multiple times, crashed, and required replacement of a server. The sitting president said he was open to a recount of all the summaries of votes from individual polling places. The candidate in third place offered to participate and make available his copies of the poll counts, received from the TSE, for comparison to the ones finally posted, which the Alianza suspects were altered or replaced by substitutes. The array of suggested steps is dizzying. The TSE itself appears stubbornly set on playing out the normal steps in its very problematic, highly criticized process.

Meanwhile, Hondurans wait.