Initially, the TSE claimed a voter participation rate of over 60%. However, a U.S.-backed Honduran civil society coalition, Hagamos Democracia (Making Democracy, HD) submitted a report to the TSE on election night, estimating that the voter turnout was, in fact, only 48.7% of the population. Although the TSE has since revised its official estimates down to 49%, the damage had already been done. The original release of the higher turnout figure came at a critical time and was widely publicized by some of the international media and a number of foreign governments as thoroughly reliable.
In the de facto regime’s quest for legitimacy, establishing a high rate of participation is a crucial step towards its recognition by the international community. Prior to the election, Manuel Zelaya and his supporters called for the ballot to be boycotted, as a scant voter turnout would demonstrate widespread support for the ousted president. Further obfuscating the scenario, the key institutions normally involved in observing elections, such as the UN, OAS, and the Carter Center, all declined to send monitoring teams to Honduras. Without the valuable testimony of well-trained and impartial international observers, validation of the election results hinges on the potentially biased oversight of Honduran election observers in what was bound to be a highly contentious election.
Still, some countries and international organizations are accepting the de facto government’s original reports of high voter participation despite significant evidence to the contrary. However, these governments and organizations should instead be calling for an in-depth analysis by independent electoral monitoring groups to convincingly verify the actual voter turnout rate. Accepting the Honduran government’s findings, as they were presented, will set a dangerous precedent for legitimizing a compromised election that could jeopardize the vitality of democratic regimes throughout the region.
Official numbers and Conflicting Statements by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal:
Ever since the June 28 coup, the TSE has been steadfast in its support of Micheletti, giving rise to suspicions of impartiality. On July 1, two days after the coup, TSE Magistrate Danny Matamoros defended the military’s ousting of Zelaya on the basis of his alleged violation of the Constitution. On September 30, the TSE qualified its support for the de facto regime by requesting that Micheletti cancel the decree suspending civil liberties, suggesting it could affect the outcome of the elections. In the days leading up to the election, at least 90 members of the TSE resigned in protest of alleged corruption behind the Tribunal’s support for the de facto regime. On October 22, tribunal president José Saúl Escobar stated, “If there is a massive participation of Hondurans at the polls, the international community will have to interpret that [as an] expression of sovereign will.” However, the high rate of voter participation that was hoped for never materialized, except in the imagination of those who wanted to throw the election.
On the night of the November 29 election, the TSE released an initial voter turnout figure of 62%, effectively legitimizing the election of Porfirio Lobo to the presidential post. Later that same night, Hagamos Democracia reported a lower rate of 48.7%, claiming 99% accuracy. While TSE publicly acknowledged this lower, more accurate figure, the following day the TSE experienced technical difficulties that “impeded the second verification of the data.” This major gaffe ran contrary to the TSE’s assurances that accurate and efficient tallies would allow the country to know the exact outcome of the election within hours of the close of the polls. In a video newsclip issued by The Real News, highly regarded journalist team composed of Jesse Freeston and Paul Jay asked a high-ranking TSE official where the figure of 62% had originated. The official, who insisted on remaining anonymous, stated that the president of the TSE, Escobar, had fabricated the statistic.
The pro-Zelaya National Front of Resistance against the Coup calculated a 65-70% rate of abstention by counting the number of voters entering polling stations and comparing that figure to the number of individuals who were registered to vote. At the press conference announcing the official results, the TSE claimed a preliminary count of 1.7 million votes, which out of 5.07 million registered voters in Honduras, amounted to a turnout of 34%. This would constitute the lowest rate of participation in Honduras’s history, and would mean that Lobo’s 54% victory actually represents only 19% of the voting population. Furthermore, while TSE Magistrate Matamoros described long lines of voters outside the polling stations, reporters on the ground in Honduras, like Joseph Caldwell of Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), gave accounts of many polling centers being sparsely populated on election day. In its initial report on election night, Hagamos Democracia also acknowledged the “problems that were in evidence – especially abstention” and stated they that further investigation should follow.
Human Rights Abuses
Multiple sources maintain that the coup regime has resorted to gross violations of human rights in a misguided attempt to quell the social unrest resulting from its illegitimate hold on power. Since the June 28 coup, violence and human rights violations have been increasingly commonplace in the country prior to, during, and immediately after the elections. “The crisis in Honduras does not end with the election results, the authorities cannot return to business as usual without assuring human right safeguards,” stated Javier Zúñiga, the head of the Amnesty International delegation in Honduras. The recent murders of Zelaya supporter Walter Trochez and human rights defender Santos Corrales García indicate that the elections have not changed the underlying situation on the ground.
During its visit from November 24-December 4, Amnesty International uncovered substantial evidence of human rights abuses at the hands of the authorities, including cases of excessive force, arrests of demonstrators by the police and military, unnecessary and excessive use of tear gas, violence against detainees, harassment of activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and political killings. The more conservative human Rights Watch also has issued a series of similar statements, and has called for the international community to look into the many violations that have taken place since the coup. Even Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela admitted at a State Department briefing on December 11, 2009 that the de facto government had been responsible for human rights abuses.
Since the beginning of its enforced rule, the Micheletti regime abruptly curtailed civil liberties and was guilty of repressing the opposition media. Micheletti’s emergency decree, issued shortly after Zelaya’s surprise return to Honduras in September, banned public gatherings, severely restricted the press, and justified arbitrary arrests by the military. The de facto government, in an attempt to silence any voice of the opposition, cancelled a series of critical radio programs including La Bullaraga, Entre Caos, and Tiempo de Hablar on the popular radio station Radio Cardena Voices. In addition, Canal 36, Radio Catracha, Cholusat Sur Radio and Radio Globo, news outlets that are known to support Zelaya’s reinstatement, were also shut down by the emergency decree. As a result, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights identified these as groups needing protection. Leading up to the election, the military restricted marches, enacted national curfews that confined residents to their homes between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and also shut down the country’s borders for 30 out of the 50 during the campaign period.
COHA has received firsthand accounts of human rights violations during the elections that detail with great precision the violence that has been taking place in Honduras. Joseph Caldwell from TASSC witnessed the violence firsthand while preparing a report on human rights abuses in Honduras. On the streets of San Pedro Sula Caldwell watched as police tanks, water trucks, and tear gas canisters were used to repel a peaceful march conducted by the resistance movement. As Caldwell detailed in his account, “a Reuter’s photographer was injured in the massive display of repression. Dozens of cells phones captured the police beating anyone they could catch with their batons.” As a result of the widespread violence and repression, Amnesty International’s Zuñiga stated, “Justice seems to have been absent on Election Day in Honduras.” This sentiment also resounded in an article by correspondent Laura Carlsen of the Washington-based Center for International Policy, who said that in her observation of the elections, they were “not free, fair, or peaceful.”
Three crucial organizations that consistently participate as observers in elections throughout the hemisphere—the OAS, the UN, and the Carter Center—chose to abstain from sending delegations to Honduras because the election would take place under an illegitimate coup government. On December 4, Secretary General Insulza of the OAS stated, “an election does not erase, on its own, the forced deposition of the constitutional President, his expulsion from the country and his seclusion, even today, under precarious conditions in the enclosed Embassy of a sister country.” In the same meeting, however, the U.S. and Costa Rican ambassadors to the OAS commended the elections; Carmen Lomellin of the U.S. cited that in her assessment, “nearly two-thirds of registered voters” qualified the election “remarkably free, fair, and transparent.” The Miami Herald reports that the Carter Center opted not to participate because the country had not established a “national unity government” and because the congressional vote to restore Zelaya was not scheduled to take place until after the elections. Similarly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s official spokesman Farhan Haq told Prensa Latina that it would play no role in the Honduran elections because of the lack of a consensus to finding a resolution to the crisis.
In the absence of formal election oversight, monitoring delegations were mobilized by the far right International Republican Institute (IRI) as well as the more moderate National Democratic Institute (NDI), organizations mainly funded by the U.S. government to purportedly advance democracy and support democratic institutions in the developing world. With grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the IRI and NDI each sent approximately 20 international experts from the United States, Europe, and Latin America to monitor the conduct and proceedings on election day. In a preliminary statement, the IRI praised the “credible and peaceful” elections, as observed by their delegates at over 100 polling stations throughout the country. While the NDI preliminary report also praised the overall transparency and professionalism of the elections, the organization diverged from the IRI on the question of credibility. The NDI was careful to qualify its observations as strictly informal, as their mission did not fulfill the standards of the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation.
The NDI delegates noted that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal offered funding to many international delegations and, in violation of accepted observation standards, “a number of observers accepted this offer.” The report also made reference to the “forcibly dispersed” protest in San Pedro Sula, which was not included in the IRI report. The NDI mission worked in collaboration with Hagamos Democracia, its civic partner in the region, acting as part of a coalition of Honduran civil society organizations, which altogether organized 1,400 Honduran volunteers to monitor the elections. However, due to the small size and short duration of these missions, their limited observation efforts cannot be considered an authoritative assessment of the elections according to widely acknowledged international standards.
Despite substantial evidence pointing to deeply disturbing discrepancies in the official voter turnout, State Department officials have continued to cite a 62% voter participation rate, and maintain that the figure legitimizes the election, and should be looked upon as a positive step towards democratic reconciliation. On November 29, the day of the election, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly announced that his agency commended the election. Shortly after the election results began to be released, Kelly speculated, “Turnout appears to have exceeded that of the last presidential election. This shows that given the opportunity to express themselves, the Honduran people have viewed the election as an important part of the solution to the political crisis in their country.” However, this interpretation of the results rests precariously on the authenticity of elections staged by a coup regime in the absence of formal international observation standards.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela also has commended the election. On November 30, he stated, “We see this election as a very important step forward for Honduras, and I would like to commend the Honduran people for an election that met international standards of fairness and transparency despite some incidents that were reported here and there.” Valenzuela, who many had hoped would champion progressive policies in Latin America, instead has continued to emphasize the State Department’s line that the election is a step towards democratic reconciliation. “We see, again, the elections as a necessary step forward, but not a sufficient one…because the elections provide the Honduran people for a way out,” said Valenzuela. When asked if the U.S. recognizes Lobo as the president-elect of Honduras, he skillfully sidestepped the question, diplomatically stating that “the United States takes note of the election,” and that Washington recognizes that Lobo won the election.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised what she calls Lobo’s victory, stating that, “We [the United States] stand with the Honduran people and we will continue to work closely with others in the region who seek to determine the democratic way forward for Honduras.” Moreover, State Department officials adamantly stressed that the campaign and lead-up to the election had developed well before the June coup, perhaps a statement meant to provide additional justification for the elections to be recognized.
In an interview with the COHA regarding the discrepancies in the reported abstention rate, a representative from the State Department acknowledged that the agency received its figures from the TSE, but emphasized the informal nature of the numbers they cite. The representative also stated that the number of Honduran nationals who currently live outside of the country significantly added to the abstention rate. Furthermore, the State Department representative recognized that although the official election figures are not scheduled for release until December 30, their sources signal that the NDI, IRI, and other NGOs all agree that Lobo had at least a 15-20% lead against his opponents. Zelaya’s call to abstain from voting in the elections may also have affected the congressional race. The Liberal Party, to which Zelaya and Micheletti both belong, was voted out of its majority in Congress, and now holds a mere 44 seats, compared to 62 after the last elections.
Recognizing elections that the region’s three most respected legitimate and unbiased election observation teams refused to even attend must raise eyebrows. Furthermore, it sets a dangerous precedent in Honduras and for other democratically-elected governments in Latin America. The lack of impartial international observers, the undeniable human rights abuses that took place during the campaigning period and election, as well as the TSE’s apparent fabrication of high voter turnout figures for strategic political purposes, all evidence that the Honduran elections were something significantly less than free, fair, or transparent. The United States and the international community must look beyond selectively chosen information to independently and objectively evaluate the legitimacy of Honduras’s elections. The Obama administration must make a definitive break from the Latin American policy of its predecessors by rejecting the tainted truth offered by elections sponsored by the Micheletti government.