Weary of presidential election limbo, Hondurans demand transparency

As mistrust of the electoral system grows, Hondurans are taking to the streets to stand up for democracy – and their role in it.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla gather around a barricade as they protest what they call electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Dec. 1. Hondurans have been waiting nearly a week for a final count from Sunday's election.

In nearly every presidential election since Honduras’s 1980 democratic transition, the new leader was announced just hours after polls closed.

This year, more than a week has passed without a victor.  Repeatedly, including Monday, there have been promises of imminent results.

The political limbo, crackdown on civil liberties, and skyrocketing mistrust for what’s happening behind the scenes as votes are counted has put Honduras’s democratic integrity under fire.

But accusations of the ruling National Party trying to consolidate power by attempting the country’s first reelection and claims of meddling with the vote count are countered by a small but significant bright spot: The Honduran population is standing up and sending a message that democracy, and their role in it, won’t be undermined.

Tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets across the country to call for transparency. Following clashes between security forces and protesters Friday, which resulted in at least one death, the government imposed a 10-day, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, sending soldiers into the street. Hondurans adapted to the restraints, marching during the day and leaning over balconies to bang pots and pans in protest at night. There are now calls for a nation-wide general strike.

“The future of Honduras is in our hands,” says one university student milling outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) late last week, while protesters nearby built roadblocks with burning tires and faced off with riot police armed with tear gas. The young woman declined to give her name out of fear she might face political persecution for speaking out. “We don’t trust the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,” she says. “We are in a system of ingovernability.... [But] we are going to defend our institutions.” 

Reelection as a flashpoint

In the lead-up to the Nov. 26 vote, the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández seemed like a given. National polls projected a double-digit lead over challenger Salvador Nasralla.

But, after nearly 10 hours of silence from the electoral commission, officials announced Nov. 27 that Mr. Nasralla of the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship had a 5-point lead with more than 50 percent of the votes counted.

“The polls said Juan Orlando was going to win, but citizens, everyday people, when you talked with them, you realized there was a strong current against” electing a president to a second consecutive term, says Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist who teaches at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

He says he’s not surprised the polls and the media favored Mr. Hernández. “The state has complete control over big media organizations,” Mr. Sosa says. The international press watchdog Freedom House categorizes Honduran media as “not free.”

The question of presidents serving more than one term consecutively became a flashpoint in Honduras in 2009, when pajama-clad then-President Manuel Zelaya was removed from his home by the military and put on a plane for Costa Rica. Defenders of the coup painted Mr. Zelaya’s call for a non-binding vote to hold a constituent assembly as a plan to do away with a constitutional ban on presidential reelection to a second term.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla march in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Sunday. Opposition leaders claim there was fraud in the presidential election and are demanding it be held again after the country erupted in deadly protests over the delayed vote count.

“Reelection, historically, hasn’t been a big sacred cow in Honduras,” says Rosemary Joyce, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the Honduras Culture and Politics blog. “Before Zelaya, we had truly never seen much conversation around [reelection]. But, using reelection to brand Zelaya has come back to haunt” the National Party.

Nearly two-thirds of Hondurans say they’re against reelection, according to a May 2017 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Once again, the Honduran people are saying no to reelection,” says Edwin Enriquo, who works in marketing, during a rally outside the opposition party headquarters Thursday.

“I don’t follow a party. I am following my convictions. I am defending my rights. We went to vote, and I feel it’s been a mockery to wait so long” for the results, Mr. Enriquo says of his first time participating in demonstrations.

While in Congress in 2012, Hernández played a leading role in illegally firing four Supreme Court judges, later replacing them with National Party sympathizers. These judges had a key part in overturning the constitutional ban on reelection last year, paving the way for his reelection bid.

“[A] pattern of subjecting institutions to his personal authority—or of ensuring their weakness—is clearly visible,” under Hernández’s administration, according to the Carnegie report.

Political agency

This isn’t the first time Hondurans have taken to the streets in recent years in the name of transparency. In 2015, months of peaceful, torch-lit protests swept the capital with some citizens calling for Hernández to step down over charges of campaign finance irregularities related to a Social Security scandal. Protesters were energized by the victories in neighboring Guatemala, including the use of months-long anti-corruption demonstrations to pressure President Otto Pérez Molina to step down.

“People in Honduras got the idea that they could be effective political agents,” says Professor Joyce of the 2015 protests and the citizens taking to the streets today.

She considers the “pragmatic” coalition of two parties with little in common coming together to support Nasralla’s candidacy as an alliance party to be a result of opposition politicians watching and participating in those 2015 protests.

The alliance “came out of listening to the people, out of a disgust in corruption generally,” she says.

After the announcement of Nasralla’s initial lead Monday, a series of events unfolded casting doubt over the TSE’s impartiality. There were no public updates for nearly 36 hours. After a reported computer glitch on Wednesday, the gap between Hernández and Nasralla shrank dramatically. By Thursday, Hernández was in the lead by 46,586 votes, or roughly 1.5 percentage points, and local media report this morning that Hernandez’s margin has inched to roughly 53,000 votes.

The deadline to announce results has been pushed back repeatedly, with one TSE official calling for an independent auditor. “[S]erious doubts are being raised,” Marcos Ramiro Lobo of the TSE told Reuters. Under opposition and international pressure, the TSE agreed to recount some contested ballots over the weekend, but there are another 5,200 polling places that the opposition believes merit a recount.  Some international observers, including the European Union and the Organization of American States, say those grievances should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Sosa says if the TSE follows through on requests for a transparent, total recount, he believes citizens will honor the results.

Either way, an announcement is expected from the TSE on Monday.

“If the National Party is declared the true winner, I expect to see more social movements emerge, and a stronger opposition,” he says.

“The people will be more critical, more indignant, more tuned in to what is happening in their government and with their country.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated since its publication on Friday to reflect events over the weekend.]

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