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Will International Observers Look at the Evidence?

Honduras: Violence and Fraud at the Polls

by MARK WEISBROT

Election results are often contested, and that is one reason why governments sometimes invite official observer missions from inter-governmental bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS) or European Union (EU). But there are times and places when these outside organizations don’t provide much of an independent observation.

On Sunday, November 24, Hondurans went to the polls to choose a new president, congress, and mayors. There were a lot of concerns about whether a free and fair election was possible in the climate of intimidation and violence [PDF] that prevailed in the country. As I noted before the vote, members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate had, in the prior six months, written to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressing their concerns.

Their worst fears proved justified. During the weekend of the election, three LIBRE party activists were murdered. This has received little attention from the media, but imagine if 120 Democratic Party organizers (scaling up for the population of the U.S.) were assassinated in the course of a U.S. presidential election. (A fourth LIBRE party activist was murdered on November 30.) LIBRE is the party formed by Hondurans who opposed the 2009 military coup that ousted the democratically-elected, left-of-center President Mel Zelaya. Their presidential candidate was Xiomara Castro, who is married to Zelaya.

Both letters also expressed concern about the electoral process, and here the result was beyond their worst nightmares. According to the official results, Xiomara Castro received 28.8 percent of the vote, behind the ruling National Party’s 36.8 percent. Another newly formed opposition party, the Anti-Corruption Party headed by Salvador Nasralla, received 13.5 percent in the official tally.

Reports of fraud, vote-buying, the buying of polling-place party representatives by the National Party, and other irregularities came from observers during the day of the election and following. Of course, these things happen in many elections, especially in poor countries, so it is generally a judgment call for election monitors to determine if the election is “good enough” to warrant approval, or whether it should be rejected. But there are two very big things that stand out in this election that raise serious doubts about the legitimacy of the vote count.

First is the compilation of votes by the LIBRE party, released on Friday. The parties are able to do their own vote count after the election because their observers receive copies of the tally sheets, which they sign, at the polling centers. The LIBRE party was able to salvage 14,593 of the 16,135 tally sheets (some LIBRE observers were reportedly tricked or intimidated into turning their copies over to the electoral authorities). They compared these tally sheets to the official results posted on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) website, and found enormous discrepancies: for example, an 82,301 overcount for the National Party, and a 55,720 undercount for the LIBRE party. This by itself is more than 4.6 percent of the total vote, well over half of the National Party’s lead in the official tally.

Hopefully the LIBRE party will post its tally sheets online so that these counts can be verified. If true, these discrepancies are so large that by themselves they would mandate the recount that the LIBRE party is demanding, if not a new election altogether.

The second big thing in this election has been the defection of a delegate from the official EU observer mission, Leo Gabriel of Austria. In a press interview with Brazil’s Opera Mundi, Gabriel explained why he breached protocol and denounced the EU’s preliminary report:

“I can attest to countless inconsistencies in the electoral process. There were people who could not vote because they showed up as being dead, and there were dead people who voted. . . the hidden alliance between the small parties and the National Party led to the buying and selling of votes and [electoral worker] credentials . . . . During the transmission of the results there was no possibility to find out where the tallies where being sent and we received reliable information that at least 20% of the original tally sheets were being diverted to an illegal server…”

He also noted that the majority of his fellow EU observers disagreed with the mission’s report but were overruled by the team leaders.

Gabriel concludes that although “EU missions have played a relevant role and have appropriately dealt with lack of transparency in electoral processes,” this was not the case in this election, where “political, economic, commercial, and even partisan interests prevailed.”

The most important partisan interest is that of Washington, which put $11 million dollars (that we know about) into the election and wanted to legitimate the rule of its ally, the National Party, just as it did in the more blatantly illegitimate election four years ago after the U.S.-backed military coup. The OAS has similarly abandoned its duty of neutrality in elections in Haiti: it changed its 2000 report on presidential elections to support U.S. efforts at “regime change,” and in 2011 took the unprecedented step of reversing an actual election result, without so much as even a recount – again in line with Washington’s electoral choices.

But the battle over this election is not over yet. Thousands of Hondurans have taken to the streets, in spite of the increasing repression and militarization of the country. The response of the international media and observer missions will be relevant: will they investigate to see if the charges of electoral fraud are true? Or will they simply watch as the National Party government consolidates itself with repression and support for the results from the U.S. and its allies?

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally ran in the Guardian.