US-Backed Honduras President Defies Constitution And Statistical Reason In Electoral ‘Win’

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The president of Honduras has run for a second term in office, despite it being explicitly banned in the nation’s constitution. But it’s the allegations of vote rigging and electoral fraud that are attracting even more attention, and claiming lives. Warwick Fry reports.

The Honduras general elections of November 26 this year were more controversial than the elections of 2013, with a remarkable lead up. Calling the shots was an administration impervious to scandal and the consequences of blatantly questionable if not illegal actions that would normally sink a government.

Not that the political and social environment of Honduras qualifies as ‘normal’. The massive increase in human rights abuses there by the government since the coup of 2009 is (or rather, should be) acknowledged internationally.

Under the post-coup regime over 40 Honduras journalists have been killed, 120 unionists and peasant leaders (the figure keeps changing), 20 lawyers, and assorted human rights workers, activists and opposition politicians.

This is not to mention numerous death threats, illegal arrests, detentions, sackings of teachers, lecturers and lawyers deemed to be over-critical.

The main opposition to the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernandez (or ‘JOH’ as he is colloquially known) this year is the Opposition Alliance, comprising LIBRE, PAC and PINU in a somewhat uneasy alliance.

PAC is a right-leaning anti-corruption party that performed well in 2013, providing media personality Salvador Nasralla as the candidate. LIBRE, the centre-left party that evolved as the political wing of the National Resistance against the coup has the mass support. It emerged fully-fledged in an unprecedented four years as a party capable of challenging the entrenched decades-old status-quo. The PINU is a small somewhat idealistic Social Democrat party.

The campaign of the Alliance is based on the apparent unconstitutionality of a Honduras President seeking a second term. How JOH got around this is intriguing.

In 2012 when he was President of the Assembly he called a special session at 4am to dismiss (illegally) four judges who were blocking neoliberal reforms and investigating corruption. These were replaced by JOH cronies.

An article of the Honduras constitution (supposedly ‘set in stone’) expressly forbids a President running for a second term. In 2015 the stacked Supreme Court ruled that term limits violated the individual’s right to run for office.

The United Nations Permanent Council receives Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras in July 2014. (IMAGE: OEA - OAS, Flickr)
The United Nations Permanent Council receives
Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras in July 2014. (IMAGE: OEA – OAS, Flickr)

It is heavy irony that the coup in 2009 was confected around the myth that the then President Mel Zelaya was seeking a second term. He wasn’t. He had simply proposed a vote on a non-binding plebiscite for constitutional reform decided by an elected constituent assembly (after the elections later that year).

Polls indicate that two thirds of the population are against JOH running for re-election.

As icing on the increment of abuses, the last few weeks saw a spike in incidents. Super-band Los Guaraguao was turned back at the airport. Five human rights observers and journalists from Al Jazeera and Telesur suffered similarly. Other reports flowed across my screen every few hours.

In less than 24 hours an Opposition (LIBRE) party activist and Mayoral candidate was murdered in La Paz, Liberal Party candidate Ilsia Raquel Portilla was murdered in La Ceiba and Jose Mario Discua Enriquez, Opposition Alliance activist (PAC) was murdered in Comayagua.

Apart from its appalling human rights record, the governing National Party seems impervious to scandal. Son of former President Porfirio Lobos, recently sentenced to 24 years prison in the US, admitted that he used his influence and Honduras police to move massive amounts of cocaine.

Former head of the Cachiros drug cartel turned himself in to the DEA in fear of his and his family’s lives. He testified that the incumbent President’s brother solicited bribes and offered government contracts that enabled money laundering.

Yet the JOH government seems confident of the continued US support critical to its survival. The compromised investigation into the assassination of environmental activist and Goldman (the ‘Green Nobel’) award winner Berta Caceres is at issue here. A significant bloc of US congresspersons are calling for cessation of US aid and military support until a thorough investigation (the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act). Unlikely, given indications that Honduras’ leading families and government connections were responsible. The US considers JOH a useful ally.

The iron nerve and inordinate sense of entitlement of the regime had many believing that a ‘stolen’ election was a foregone conclusion. The fact that the military is responsible for the transportation of the ballots and that the Tribunal is stacked with JOH’s cronies had the opposition believing that there would be an attempt to ‘steal’ these elections.

Compared to the ebullience of the 2013 elections the atmosphere this year was tense and pessimistic. In 2013, Xiomara Castro Zelaya, candidate for the LIBRE party and wife of the ousted ex-president Mel Zelaya looked like claiming a safe victory against JOH. She arrived at the conference centre three quarters of the way through the count and made what amounted to a victory speech to a crowd of jubilant supporters.

A few hours later the mood was sombre. One journalist remarked that the reversal of the trend was like watching a different election.

Later, international journalists who went to some of the more remote booths in the countryside showed me video of tallies that did not match the electronic tally of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (the TSE).

At a press conference the next day Mel and Xiomara had to talk down calls from supporters to take to the streets.

This year it happened. With 60% of the vote counted on Sunday, and Nasralla showing a five-point lead the TSE (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) inexplicably stopped announcing the results. When they resumed nearly two days later JOH had caught up in a reversal of the voting trend that even two members of the TSE said was statistically impossible.

By Thursday JOH was 3000 votes ahead. Observers believe the TSE is filtering the opposition candidate’s votes out of the count.

Coincidentally with the hiatus in the vote counting the country was heavily militarised. The fraudulent count by the TSE was so blatant that even observers from the OAS (Organisation of American States) and the EU (European Union) have raised concerns. Alliance supporters have taken to the streets to confront the military. A general strike has been called and roads have been blocked all over the country.

Before the election the opposition were saying that for JOH to stand for a second term was equivalent to a continuation of the coup of 2009. The popular outrage now looks like the massive mobilisations and street marches of the National Resistance movement against the coup of 2009, which was sustained for months.

At the time of going to press there are reports of 19 wounded and three killed in confrontations with police and military.

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Warwick Fry

Warwick Fry is a freelance journalist based in Central America. He is currently researching a book about the Salvadoran civil war.

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