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Honduras recount: Can a free and fair election also be fraudulent?

International observers say Honduras presidential election results are 'transparent,' but protesters are alleging fraud. A recount may settle the dispute. 

By Seth RobbinsCorrespondent / December 9, 2013

Electoral workers and members of the electoral tribunal conduct a vote count in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013.

Fernando Antonio/AP

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras

With clouds of tear gas hanging in the air, hundreds of students sheltered themselves behind the National University’s gates two days after the hotly contested presidential election here.

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The student groups didn’t come out looking for trouble, they say, but to register their disgust with the country’s election system – which had just proclaimed ruling party Congressman Juan Orlando Hernández Honduras' next president.

Many of these youth were among thousands of university students who sacrificed their chance to vote in order to serve as election custodians, running polling centers in far-flung parts of the country. Though none would give his or her full name, citing fears of reprisal, several recalled witnessing signs of fraud, like the buying of votes and polling credentials; voters presenting false IDs; and people handing out gifts on the eve of the Nov. 24 election.

“We thought [this election] was going to be different, and it was the same as always,” says a 23-year-old IT student who served as an election volunteer. “What happened is a mockery for us.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the losing presidential candidates say the same. Two are demanding recounts, alleging fraud, and, in the case of left-wing hopeful Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, calling supporters into the streets for rowdy, defiant marches.  

These allegations run contrary to the findings of some 700 international observers who served in Honduras last month. In their official reports, the missions described the elections as largely trouble-free. Experts say such disagreement is typical, as monitoring missions – which are often composed of professors, lawyers, human rights activists, and college students – are inclined to look more at the general quality of the election process than ferret out every tiny irregularity.

“Almost all elections have some problems,” says Susan Hyde, an expert on international election observation missions at Yale University. “It’s a difficult judgment to make.”

But the disputes between the election authority and detractors could exacerbate existing polarization here, building on polemic issues of poor security and economic opportunity. The election authority agreed to hold a recount, but has yet to do so. 

Fraud ... or sore losers?

Candidates can be loath to accept observers’ findings, especially in countries where politics are polarized and democratic institutions are weak, experts say. Elections in war-torn Afghanistan have repeatedly thrust election observers into the spotlight. Venezuela’s opposition candidate still contests last April’s presidential election results, despite observers having characterized them as fair. And after Mexico’s 2006 elections, also deemed fair, losing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador went so far as to set up a parallel government.

The European Union mission’s report on the Honduran elections, issued within days of the official results, praised both the “the transparency of voting” and “respect of the will of the voters during the counting process,” despite some irregularities. The Organization of American States’ report similarly congratulated Honduras for an organized election and high voter turnout.

Honduran presidential candidate and television personality Salvador Nasralla says he has no faith in the international election monitors.“There are complaints from a ton of people signifying that the process was not transparent,” he says.

Mr. Nasralla, whose Anti-Corruption Party, or PAC, finished with 14 percent of the vote, has formally demanded a full recount, claiming that “unofficial modems” were used to transmit election results. He also says he has evidence of inconsistencies between tally sheets and votes recorded, and of masked men marking paper ballots to accord with official tallies. The real results, he contends, would show him winning.

Meanwhile, Ms. Castro, of the newly formed left-wing Libre party, has refused to concede the presidency to Mr. Hernández. The electoral authority’s official results give Hernández 37 percent of the votes, and Castro 29 percent.

In her first appearance since the elections, Castro – whose husband is deposed former President Manuel Zelaya – held a press conference to declare the elections a “disgusting monstrosity.” Within days thousands of Libre supporters poured into the streets, with Castro and Mr. Zelaya marching alongside the coffin of a Libre activist who they alleged was killed for political reasons just after the election. Police could not confirm that the killing was political.   

Castro also demanded a recount, and election officials consented to review results from more than 16,000 voting stations with Libre party representatives present. The recount has stalled over disagreements between Libre and elections officials, and on Friday Castro and Zelaya filed a formal complaint demanding the outright annulment of the election results.

Honduras’s electoral authority is “doing the right thing” by helping the parties settle discrepancies in the vote, says Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, which sent a small delegation last month in support of the larger EU and OAS missions.

“The important part that often gets short shrift is the dispute process,” Ms. McCoy says.

What's considered fraud?

The student custodians, however, say that even a full vote-by-vote recount won’t solve the problems they witnessed. Some say there was voting-credential fraud: smaller parties, which had no chance of winning, sold their credentials to larger parties. This allowed the dominant parties to have extra representatives at tables where ballots were received and counted. Each party should have had only two.

One student custodian held a document signed and stamped by municipal election authorities in the southeastern department of Olancho that attested to voters presenting false IDs, and to people “offering payments outside the voting center.”

Another custodian, sent to Honduras’s western Lempira department, says one mayor drove through town giving away cement, wood paneling, and bags of beans just before voting commenced.  Other observers have noted discount cards for food, pharmaceuticals, and telephone services being handed out at booths outside voting centers.

Monitors watch for these and other forms of pre-election vote buying, McCoy says. No cell phones were allowed in Honduran polling places, for example, to keep voters from offering parties proof of their vote. But vote buying is nearly impossible to stop, she says, and is not, technically, considered fraud.

“If someone accepts a benefit,” she says, “and then they go in and vote in a truly secret ballot election, then their vote is not bought.”

'More voices'

The election monitoring agencies did cite irregularities in their assessments. The EU’s report spoke not only of the trade in credentials, but criticized Honduras’ election system for its lack of transparency in campaign financing, its unreliable voter registry, and for making it difficult for voters to submit complaints on election day.

Still, the report’s mention of irregularities didn’t go far enough for one EU observer, Leo Gabriel of Austria, who broke protocol and in an interview with a Brazilian website Opera Mundi denounced the mission’s generally positive report. Mr. Gabriel said there was heated debate between observers and EU mission leaders before the report was issued.

The United States and its ambassador may not have helped the situation, says Rosemary Joyce, a Honduras expert at University of California, Berkeley. The US State Department congratulated Honduras on “generally transparent” elections when votes were still being tallied.

“We had more pressure to put [on Honduras] than anybody else,” Ms. Joyce says. “We didn’t use it.”

Yet Joyce says that, provided a transparent recount is done, Honduras will likely come out of this election stronger. The congressional gains made by upstart parties like LIBRE and PAC signify a historic shift in political power, as the two traditionally powerful parties, National and Liberal, won’t control congress anymore. “You will have more voices,” she says.

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