Yesterday’s elections will likely go down as one of the most controversial contests ever recorded in the history of Honduras. The two main presidential candidates, the incumbent of the National Party, 49-year old Juan Orlando Hernández, and the challenger of the leftist Alliance of Opposition, 64-year old Salvador Nasralla, both proclaimed victory in the country’s presidential election.
The main culprit of this embarrassing outcome is the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The norm in Honduras, as elsewhere, is that results are gradually published as ballots are counted. The president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, David Matamoros, had promised a first round of preliminary results two hours after the closing of ballot boxes, at 5 pm. However, the highly anticipated conference never took place. Instead, Hondurans and international observers were told they would have to wait for results to be published. The media, particularly HRN, a local radio station, released an early exit poll that had incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández winning with 43.9% of votes, with Salvador Nasralla far behind in second place with 34.7 percent.
The Alliance of Opposition, a coalition of parties founded by ousted president Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009) that includes the leftist Party of Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE), held a press conference where they proclaimed their victory. Juan Orlando Hernández and the National Party were quick to respond by also announcing their triumph. Both sides claimed to have won the election by at least five percentage points. What was so interesting about these contradicting conclusions is that both political groups said they relied on their own polling data. Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the official voice of electoral results, remained silent—feeding the growing levels of uncertainty surrounding the election. Many criticized the lack of transparency of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal since most of its members, including David Matamoros, are active members of the National Party and were nominated into their positions by the sitting president. More than anything, the unprecedented actions of the Tribunal confirmed that the race was much closer than originally thought.
At around 10 pm on Sunday, a distressed looking David Matamoros held a brief press conference without taking questions. He said that despite having approximately 40% of ballots accounted for, the results were far from determined, mainly because they covered the country’s urban areas. The statement came across as a poorly planned last-minute excuse—since results can be published without necessarily being definite—to gain time to add the votes from Honduras’ poor rural areas, where the incumbent National Party is particularly strong.
Spectators were told once again they would have to wait. Three hours later, after both candidates had claimed victory, international observers addressed the press to express their discontent and ask the Tribunal to make preliminary results public. Once again, Nasralla addressed a crowd of sympathizers and said he had won the presidency with 45.4% of votes, leaving Hernández in second place with 40.6 percent. Minutes later, the sitting president announced he had won the presidency by seven points.
Finally, at 2 am on Monday the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal published what until then was an unthinkable result: with 57% of votes accounted for, Nasralla was ahead of Hernández by more than five points, almost 100,000 votes in a country with barely 5,000,000 registered voters. However, the margin has become much slimmer since the first results were made public.
Though the race is still too close to call, various lessons can be drawn from yesterday’s elections. First, it’s time for Honduras’ political class to address the shortcomings of its vote counting system through reforms that will make this procedure more transparent. Giving the Supreme Electoral Tribunal true independence from other government branches, particularly the Executive branch, is a good starting point. This is the only way to guarantee impartiality and avoid vote rigging, which was a source of concern prior to the election. Second, the preliminary results show that a large portion of Hondurans have decided to punish Hernández, an incumbent who has overseen economic growth, but whose presidency has been plagued by corruption scandals and a controversial bid for re-election. Third, the results confirm the extent of change of Honduras’ party system. The country, once home to a stable two-party system, has officially consolidated a multiparty system where the conservative National Party will be competing against the leftist Alliance of Opposition. Honduras’ Liberal Party, once the country’s electoral hegemon, seems destined to be relegated to third place.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal had issued two reports. It in fact has only issued one. The article’s reference to the second report was actually a statement by noted Hernández supporter Arturo Corrales. Corrales was also the pollster who released the exit poll showing Hernández in the lead.