On Saturday night the streets of Tegucigalpa were filled with the sound of banging pots and pans that emanated from a cacerolazo. The protest was summoned by the leaders of the Alliance of Opposition—a coalition of the leftist Party of Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE) and its smaller social democratic partner, the Party of Innovation and Unity (PINU)—as a response to the series of delays in the publication of results of the country’s presidential election, which took place over a week ago, on November 26th. The aftermath of the election, which has been surrounded by ‘technical’ irregularities and accusations of vote rigging, has given rise to massive protests, which have left five dead, and the imposition of a 10-day curfew. Honduras’ already fragile democracy is in peril.
From the outset, high levels of polarization marked the election. Juan Orlando Hernández, the 49-year old incumbent of the National Party who was first elected in 2013, oversaw a series of polemical constitutional changes that allowed him to run for reelection. The move was criticized because Honduras’ 1982 Constitution explicitly prohibited the reelection of presidents and vice-presidents—and even banned discussion of reelection among public officials. Less than a decade ago, Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, who as president (2006-2009) underwent a drastic policy-shift from mainstream centrist to Bolivarian populist, had previously attempted to change the constitution to pave his way to reelection through a failed referendum in 2009, which culminated in his ousting from power via a military coup orchestrated by Honduras’ Supreme Court.
This change in the rules of the game represents one of various heated episodes surrounding Hernández’s presidency. In 2015, Hernández admitted that his first presidential campaign had received approximately $150,000 of illegal donations taken from the Honduran Institute for Social Security (IHSS). The corruption scandal triggered a series of mass protests that culminated in the establishment of the Organization of American States (OAS) backed Mission of Support Against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH).
Though last Sunday’s election developed normally, the publication of results from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has been a source of controversy. The unwritten norm in the nine presidential elections that have taken place in Honduras since the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1980s is for preliminary results to be published a couple of hours after the closing of voting booths at 5pm. Nevertheless, David Matamoros, a member of the incumbent National Party who earlier this year became the president of the TSE, announced that there would be a slight delay in the publication of results, failing to provide a convincing technical explanation for the postponement.
Salvador Nasralla, the 67-year old sports commentator turned presidential candidate who campaigned on the platform of the leftist Alliance of Opposition, announced early on election night that he had won the race. Barely minutes later, Juan Orlando Hernández addressed a crowd of sympathizers and also claimed victory. By the end of Election Day, Honduras was home to two self-proclaimed president-elects with no official word from the TSE.
After a series of delays, as well as growing pressure from national and international observers, the TSE published initial results on Monday around 2am. They showed an unexpected result: the challenger, Nasralla, was defeating the incumbent, Hernández, by five percentage points. The trend remained the same throughout Tuesday, despite the unprecedented slow pace of vote counting. However, on Wednesday, Matamoros revealed to the press that the system in charge of counting the votes had experienced a malfunction and had stopped working for approximately five hours. The alleged failure took place after Hernández and Nasralla had separately signed an Organization of American States (OAS) agreement to respect the election outcome. Shortly after the system began working again, Hernández took the lead and Nasralla announced that he would not respect the agreement, triggering the country’s gravest political crisis since the 2009 coup d’état against Mel Zelaya.
Though vote rigging in this year’s presidential election has not yet been confirmed, the irregularities merit a thorough independent investigation—particularly concerning the failure of the electronic vote counting system employed by the TSE. The TSE recently finished the recount of ballots that were deemed as “irregular”, and Juan Orlando Hernández remained the frontrunner, essentially reelected as Honduras’s next president—defeating Nasralla by less than 55,000 votes (with 99.98% of votes counted). Nasralla’s Alliance was not part of the counting process, though the TSE did wait for them to send representatives for two days. The Alliance excused themselves by claiming they no longer recognize the TSE as a legitimate institution. This probably means that once Hernández is declared the winner, the Alliance will contest the results and deepen the political crisis by not recognizing Hernández’s government and continuing to protest in the streets.
Two short-term solutions can be formulated to guarantee the democratic legitimacy of Honduras’ next president. Needless to say, they can only work if both sides agree beforehand to accept the results. On one hand, all ballots can be counted again in a manner that ensures transparency—including the presence of all parties’ involved, as well as independent national and international observers. Alternatively, a presidential run-off election could be held in the near future between Hernández and Nasralla.
Both options have obvious drawbacks. A full recount would have to adequately filter the votes that were allegedly computed in an irregular manner during the vote-counting system malfunction. The same would have to be done to the ballots to choose legislators and local representatives, which have received less attention in comparison to the contested presidential election. A recount could take weeks, if not months. Likewise, there would have to be some legally binding resolution in order to conduct a second-round vote, since the mechanism is currently nonexistent in Honduras’ constitution.
Notwithstanding the formal and informal hurdles surrounding both options, immediate action needs to be taken. Honduras’ hard-earned, though incipient, democracy deserves nothing less than full transparency to determine who will rule the country for the next four years. A failure to address the problems that emanated from the election will not only severely weaken democracy in Honduras, but could also result in an unwanted return to authoritarianism.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.