After weeks of counting and recounting ballots in Honduras’ contested presidential election, and deadly clashes between security forces and protesters, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced Sunday that incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández is the country’s next leader.
The European Union, one of the international bodies observing the Nov. 26 election, appeared to back those results, announcing that, despite earlier concerns, the recount showed no irregularities.
But the Organization of American States (OAS), which also sent official election observers, had a different take: “The only possible path for the winner to be the Honduran people is a new call for general elections,” as Secretary General Luis Almagro said in a statement.
The OAS found irregularities in the election, including “deliberate human intrusions into the computer system, intentional elimination of digital traces,” open or tampered ballot boxes, and “the narrow difference of votes” between the two front-runners. The margin of victory was roughly 50,000 votes, or 1.6 percentage points, according to the TSE.
Calling an election fraudulent to the extent that it’s deemed invalid is a rarity in Latin America, where observation missions have taken place since Chile’s 1988 referendum on then-dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Protests are continuing as foreign governments move to congratulate Mr. Hernández, or tip-toe around the situation, buying time. What happens next – when the government has been called out on the international stage, yet has no legal obligation to follow the OAS’s guidance – underscores the fragility of trust in governing institutions in the region, and throws into question the role of democratic watchdogs like election monitors. Over the past three decades, election monitoring has become a global norm, but in some ways that has diluted the power election monitors have in practice.
“What’s at risk is the whole essence of democracy,” says Jennie Lincoln, director of the Latin America program at the Carter Center, who has worked as an election observer since the 1980s. “If leaders or governments or political parties can stomp on the tenets of democracy, of open, free, and fair participation, then the whole system is undermined.”
Winner at last?
Hernández accepted his victory this week, calling for national dialogue and inviting opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla to meet. Under Honduran law, Mr. Nasralla’s Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship coalition party and others have five days to lodge complaints with the election authority before the victory is cemented.
“We have fulfilled our obligation [and] we wish for there to be peace in” Honduras, TSE President David Matamoros said Sunday after announcing Hernández’s win.
Honduras has garnered global attention since its vote count took a sudden turn late last month, when Nasralla’s seemingly insurmountable lead eroded after nearly a day and a half of silence from the TSE. But the country has a track record of consolidating power when the world looks away, says Christopher Sabatini, who teaches Latin American affairs at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs.
“People’s attention will move on. That’s what happened in 2009,” he says, referring to the year when Hernández’s National Party orchestrated a coup to remove then-President Manuel Zelaya from office. “They just waited. Refused to step down,” and offered to hold new elections later that year to “wipe the slate clean,” Sabatini says.
The National Party won that election, and went on to stack the Supreme Court with party sympathizers. That laid the groundwork for allowing Hernández to run again this year, despite a Constitutional ban on reelection.
A complicated choice
“Most elections all over the world are validated [by international observers] because the bar for invalidating an election is so astronomically high,” says Irfan Nooruddin, an election expert at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Dr. Nooruddin did a statistical analysis of TSE-provided Honduras election data as a consultant for the OAS this month, which concluded, “I would reject the proposition that the National Party won the election legitimately.”
Still, he says, it was a surprise when the OAS called for fresh elections.
Calls for a re-vote are rare because “no one wants to be accused of undermining sovereignty. You don’t want international observers’ decisions substituting the will of the people,” Nooruddin says.
But when that kind of hesitation leads to approval of fishy elections, it can also weaken citizen faith in democracy and international observers. Hondurans went into the polls already skeptical: Almost 66 percent of Hondurans don’t trust their elections, according to Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project.
“If people get away with undermining democracy [during an election] then what’s next? Acceptance of corruption? Acceptance of violence? Acceptance of trouncing human rights? There’s a spiral that goes downward,” says Dr. Lincoln.
Election monitors may justify signing off on elections as free and fair, even if they were imperfect, because “if we go about calling out elections as illegitimate all the time, no one will invite us back,” Nooruddin says.
Many argue it’s better to have monitors present in an educational capacity than missing from the scene entirely. But in the case of Honduras, there was a long list of needed changes to improve the integrity of the electoral system given after the 2013 presidential race, like a more independent TSE, that were never put into practice.
“What’s the lesson for the international community?” Lincoln asks. “Either know that you’re pushing a rock up a hill, or change some kind of collaboration or coordination with the governments so that these reforms can be made.”
Observing the observers
There was a strong shift toward election monitoring globally in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the United States emphasized and encouraged democratic reform around the world. “Elections were seen as the most obvious indicator of a democratic transition,” says Nooruddin, who co-authored a book touching on the disconnect between quality elections and quality democracy.
As a result, “there’s almost an obsessive focus on election day in this broader promotion of democracy,” he says. “We are good at having better elections, but we rush to equate that with better democracy, which is shortsighted,” he says.
Election monitoring has become an international norm, but that doesn’t always mean fairer elections. For leaders more committed to power than democracy, being able to point to the presence of an international observer during an election – no matter their standards – gives a semblance of legitimacy.
That’s recently become the case in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua, where the governments have relied on observations by newer monitoring groups like The Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA). The group is reportedly made up largely of former electoral magistrates from across the region, who aren’t necessarily trained in election observation and tend to helicopter in for election day – as opposed to weeks ahead of time, as is the traditional practice of well-respected observation groups.
“They are a stooge for whatever government wants them,” says Mr. Sabatini, who recently wrote about the group on the website The Global Americans, where he’s executive director. “They go through the motions of election monitoring” and in the end can help a government look legitimate.
“They are diluting the system and in some ways making it meaningless,” he says.
CEELA is not alone. Other election-monitoring groups, such as the Union of South American Nations’s, have also been accused of less stringent standards. “All international observers are not equal,” Lincoln says.
But the OAS and the EU are two of the most respected monitoring bodies participating in the region. The EU has walked back its initial statements made at a press conference earlier this week supporting the TSE decision, noting on Twitter that its conclusions aren’t absolute until it publishes its final report.
“Election monitors have become so widely used that [the system] arguably isn’t useful anymore,” says Nooruddin. “The most shocking thing to happen in Honduras is that the OAS had the guts to say ‘This is not good enough.’ ”