Honduran Election Results Still Need To Be Scrutinized, State Department Dashes Hopes that a Transformative Latin America Policy Has Been Born

A growing number of nations in the international community have decided to recognize the recent Honduran elections administered by the country’s unlawful de facto government, citing high rates of voter participation as evidence that a “free and fair” election had taken place on November 29. Believing a basis now exists for national reconciliation, the United States, Panama, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru have all accepted the electoral results. However, their decisions have been based on inaccurate and deceptive electoral figures released on the day of the election by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of Honduras.

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.”

Election Observation

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.

U.S. Response

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.

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15 thoughts on “Honduran Election Results Still Need To Be Scrutinized, State Department Dashes Hopes that a Transformative Latin America Policy Has Been Born

  • December 15, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Why does COHA seem to flog a dead horse? Peaceful protests aimed at boycotting an election are illegal pretty much anywhere in the world, and the peaceful march in San Pedro Sula was aimed at hampering voting in the city center. While Micheletti has been heavy-handed, I think if Zelaya had gotten away with enacting his constitutional assembly, however illegally, we'd be hearing COHA sing his praises. By supporting morally corrupt regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and even Iran, COHA has shown us that it really doesn't stand against human rights violations, but rather right-wing human rights violations. I don't trust an organization that openly calls for an end to Cuban sanctions while supporting sanctions for Honduras or Colombia. You either oppose the use of sanctions as a political tool or support them, but you can't have it both ways, COHA.

    • December 16, 2009 at 3:41 pm

      Let me disagree with Chele, "guest" and Alex…

      I'm so tired of people labeling the social movement against the Coup d'état as Melistas (Zelayists) or Communists. Some facts have to be straighten out:

      (1) A Coup d'état has taken place.
      (2) There is people who agree (Constitutional Succession Supporters) , disagree and also those waiting to see what happens in the end; not only Hondurans bu the International Community.
      (3) The Honduras Main Stream Media has lost all sense of ethics and objectivity to the point that those who are againt the Coup d'état rely on serious organizations to get the Real News, hardcore evidence out.

      When it comes to people's political preferences, standing on the left or right side of the political spectrum really does not matter, and most people can't even it define it correctly. What is important is if the political actions taken work for them. As a matter of fact, I challenge you to make a experiment (trying to be unbiased): Ask people to define Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism and Communism. In the humble experience in Honduras, people tend to confuse Democracy with Capitalism, sometimes to the extent of thinking its the same thing!

      What we have is a problem of EDUCATION and TABOO in all the stratum!

      I do agree the Chavez regime is not corruption free, since that is a social conditions not political. The question is, how has Venezuela improved most of it socioeconomic indicators to the extent of reducing the amount of people living below the poverty line by half in 10 years? I'm not making this up, look for CEPAL statistics. So as I said before, it's not a problem of left and right but a matter of functionality.

      Also, the Constitution pretty much works fine – for those who have control over politics, wealth, religion, military, etc. In other words, a tiny minority, less that 1% of the population!

      Thanks COHA for summarizing the facts in occurring in my country!

  • December 15, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    An excellent summary of a discredited election and the State Department's disturbing spin.

    I thought Dr. Valenzuela's comments at Friday's State Department briefing were considerably more nuanced than the remarks by the Secretary of State.

    His personal analogy to the imperfect elections that led to the end of the Pinochet regime were thought provoking but not entirely persuasive. The transition from a deeply entrenched military dictatorship is different from undoing a very recent military implemented oligarchic coup.

    It is hard to know what can be done now. It is very unlikely that the Honduran golpistas will ever allow Zelaya to finish his term, and not clear whether he would agree to do so at this point.

    If President-elect Lobo honestly wants to move on, he will commit himself to a full pardon for President Zelaya and appoint him to organize a democratically elected assembly to redraft the constitution that was written by the last military government.

    The State Deparment Western Hemisphere briefing can be seen at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/290612-1 Valenzuela speaks at 73 minutes in. Honduras comes up at 87 minutes.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

    • December 15, 2009 at 11:34 pm

      If the referendum–or even a "public opinion poll" trying to bring about a referendum–was so unacceptable to the other branches of government that they were willing to overthrow Zelaya, defy the OAS and the UN, and face the bluster and threats of Chávez and company, what on earth makes you think that Lobo would grant a referendum and put Zelaya in charge of it. If the kind of constitutional changes being contemplated were so unacceptable in June or July, what makes them any more palatable now?

      • December 16, 2009 at 12:56 am

        It's because 'some people' (read: the communists) think you can legislate away 500 years of history and things will magically change overnight. Honduras' problems are cultural and historic. We Hondurans can screw up just about any system of government with our corruption, incompetence and lack of political will. Whether it be a communist, fascist, right-wing or social democrat regime, count on a Honduran to throw a wrench in the works. The notion that a leftist regime would have solved all Honduran problems is laughable. There was corruption under the neoliberal governments and a Chavez-affiliated government would have had the exact same problems only with a lot more social strife, class warfare and street politics.

  • December 16, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I am always amazed by the Pro-Zelaya COHA. I am still wondering why Zelaya wanted a referendum to change the constitution in the first place. For 30 years this constitution worked very well why all of a sudden was it necessary to change it. One of the reason was Zelaya saw what other lefist leaders in Latin America did like Chavez, Morales and Correria and thought he could get away with it. Unfortunately it backfired on him.

    • December 17, 2009 at 2:32 am

      Wow Alex, your comment is really disturbing. Clearly, you are neither Honduran nor Latin. "For 30 years this constitution worked very well why all of a sudden was it necessary to change it." Are you kidding? Are you aware that a good 70% of the population lives under dire conditions of poverty? That, even though, GDP has increased exponentially in the last 30 years, income per capita has only decreased, as have the conditions of the healthcare and education systems? Please think your comments through next time. As a Honduran, I am deeply offended by your off-handed comment that our constitution "works". Clearly I know a document is not responsible for the ails of my country, but there clearly needs to be some change. The constitution is a good place to start, given that it would provide the population with some say (through the Constitutional Assembly) in what it dictates and much more adamant in pursuing its application as opposed to now where they are very passive because they feel helpless given that all the power is in the hands of the small oligarchic elite.

      • December 17, 2009 at 5:27 am

        As a Honduran I am offended by the notion that importing the Venezuelan model with a scoundrel like Zelaya at the helm would have fixed things. Honduras needs solutions which enable progress and social equality with a minimal amount of social conflict. Central Americans don't need a lot of prodding in order to take up arms. Chavez has had 10 years to enact his Bolivarian Revolution, but corruption and crime are just as common as ever. This is because constitutions can say whatever they want, but true change only comes when political figures find the will to bring about that change. Social equality will only come to Honduras when the political will to do so exists. The oligarchic elite may be a roadblock to development, but a socialist system a-la Venezuela simply would not have worked in Honduras. We do not have the unlimited funds Chavez has to enact a similar system. It just saddens me that the old 1970s-style Marxist thinking still seems to plague the minds of Latin America's intelligentsia. In its current state, the only way that Honduras will see any economic growth and increased social equality is through a market-based economy combined with increased social policies. It is simply too poor to implement a command economy as is the case with Venezuela. The solution is not rehashing Marxist theory, but rather co-opting the elite by making investment in social development a necessity for them.

  • December 16, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Thanks to COHA for covering this issue. Elections are not democracy, but they are its last line of defense. When elections become corrupted, as this one very obviously was, the country has already entered dictatorship, no matter what labels are placed on leaders.

    I urge COHA to get in touch with the resistance, which did place some poll observers, as well as the "independent" poll observers to see if any reliable estimates of voting place-level turnout are available. These can be compared against the eventual reports of the TSE.

  • December 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    This is a briliant piece of research. One important fact to check is whether El Salvador should be part of the list of countries that have recognized the results of the election. There is no indication that El Salvador has recognized this sham of an election engulfed in repression.

  • December 16, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Honduras is living under a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. No doubt about it. Don't know why the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seems to think this is an honest election.

  • December 17, 2009 at 3:04 am

    Alex, this constitution has worked well for 30 years? for who, certainly not the 70 percent of the people in poverty that see a constitution shaped by and for US economic interests. Where does your view of the democratic institutions stability in Honduras take shape? from your cabana on the bay islands. now our campisno and campisinas are getting terrorized and detained in Tocoa for trying to work the very land that is theirs. you must work for united fruit, eh.

  • December 17, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Leyla let me tell you that it is your comment that is disturbing. First of all I think you must be mistaken when you say GDP has increased exponentially, when it has remained static since 2000, you must be looking at nominal GDP and not real GDP that takes out inflation. Now I agree that there are problems in Honduras, and that there is a group of privileged elite that abuse their power to make money, but I am not willing to replace an elite that provides jobs for a governmental elite of nut jobs like Mel Zelaya. You want to change things, go ahead, you can change all of the Honduran constitution except those articles that talk about reelection.

    • December 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm

      I was speaking about the last 30 years, since our current constitution was created, and perhaps I did use the word "exponentially" too callously but it is undeniable that our country's economy has developed very much in the last 3 decades. Still, the poverty level has increased and there is no correlation between economic development and poverty reduction. I find THIS disturbing.

  • January 5, 2012 at 1:28 am

    these are all so great! so sweet you and your husband share the same hobby, thats awesome. and im also glad to know im not the only one who feels the way i do about having kids. SOOOOO with you on that one!


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