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Honduras's questionable election: At the crossroad of regional interests

A potentially rigged election has unearthed a country suffering from statal repression, the legacy of a coup and the interests of its large neighbour

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In a country where the final results have always been given out in a relatively short time, a delay of more than 8 days to declare the next president has destabilised Honduras. Multiple suspensions of the vote count which saw a sudden reversal in the fortunes of the competing candidates raised the suspicion of electoral fraud. With that came street protests, statal repression and at least 11 deaths. International criticisms of the Honduran government however, have arguably been mild.

Incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernandez (pictured left) with the secretary general of the OAS Luis Almagro (pictured right) in Washington, DC. September 28, 2015.

According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernandez has achieved a tight victory of 42.98% of the vote, over his opponent Salvador Nasralla, who received a percentage of 41.38. Nonetheless, the TSE's questionable behaviour places the legitimacy of this result in doubt. During the election on November 26, the TSE closed voting at 4 pm even though the norm previously had been to extend the process by an hour. Furthermore, while the first preliminary results indicated that Nasralla led a five point lead with 45.17% of the vote, against Hernandez's 40.21%, the TSE placed the counting process on hold for 36 hours. Its resumption saw the sudden reversal of fortunes as Hernandez's share of the votes began to catch up to Nasralla's. A supposed computer glitch that suspended the process once again for 7 hours on the 29th raised suspicion to an all time high, as Nasralla denounced the process as a fraudulent one. By the 30th, Hernandez was in the lead.

Suspicion of the TSE's impartiality is not only due to this election. Its members are selected by the country's congress, which is dominated by Hernandez's 'National Party'. The conservative National Party and the Liberal Party, are the two traditional parties that until recently have dominated the Central American country. Nasralla instead belongs to the centrist Anti-Corruption Party, which is part of the broad coalition: 'Alliance of Opposition to the Dictatorship'. Within the Alliance, the left-wing Libre party is seen as the strongest force. Back in 2013 its candidate Xiomara Castro was able to come second in the election that brought Hernandez to power. Libre stems from the election of Castro's husband, Manuel Zelaya to the presidency in 2005.

Zelaya's term was marked by both an increase in the living standards of Hondurans, who were until then accustomed to living in a semi-feudal system, and increasing confrontation with the country's traditional politicians. In 2009 it was eventually cut short when the former president was forcibly removed and exiled by the army in a move widely described as an illegal coup. This also contributed to the increasing destabilisation of Honduras, nowadays considered one of the world's most violent countries. The impeachment itself was justified by the interim conservative government on the basis that Zelaya was attempting to rewrite the constitution in order to allow him to abolish the one term presidential limit.

As such, the entire premise of this latest election is controversial as the Supreme Court, also dominated by the National Party, downright allowed Hernandez to run again, even though it had previously contributed to the ouster of Zelaya due to the mere possibility of him attempting to remove the term limit.

The sluggish pace of the vote count, coupled with the irregularities linked to the suspension of the process several times, and a growing disintegration of trust in the electoral process led thousands of frustrated Hondurans to pour into the streets and protest. The protesters were met with violence from the state and the enactment of a curfew and a state of siege by the government. So far 11 people have died and dozens more are injured in a climate that the Honduran National Roundtable for Human Rights described as the 'imposition of terror on the citizens'.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has denounced the irregular incidents and declared that any outcome declared in those circumstances would be illegitimate in its eyes. This pan-american organisation has been attempting to regain its importance in the continent following a decade of decline when it was eclipsed by the more regional organisations such as UNASUR, the CELAC and ALBA. This was due to the perception that the organisation works for US interests, at a time when the region's awareness of its independence from Washington was growing. So far, the OAS has attempted its comeback by presenting a tough front against the supposed human rights violations of the Venezuelan government. However, this itself has attracted criticism.

While it is fair to point out that the OAS has criticised the Honduran government, its greatest response so far has been to recommend a partial to full recount of the election by the very TSE. They only have to follow the recommendations to legitimise the election. The TSE is still considered by the OAS as trustworthy enough to conduct such an operation. This is policy is rather mild when compared to the OAS's attempts at suspending Venezuela as well as fully delegitimising its government. It was even criticised of partisanship by allying itself with the Venezuelan opposition, whereas in Honduras it has not expressed any connection to Nasralla and the Alliance. Thus, the organisation appears to confirm the claims of its submissiveness to Washington.

The USA was complicit in the removal of Zelaya and is currently Hernandez's closest ally. In a region where there is a growing disillusionement of the War on Drugs by both the people and their governments, Honduras and the United States continue to favour a militarised solution to the violence plaguing the continent. The strategic position of the country, situated in a major smuggling route, makes Honduras even more important as an ally if Washington's traditional approach is to prevail.

Furthermore, the resurgence of the embattled Latin American left in numerous countries' polls could see them returning to power in the near future. During his term, Zelaya had favoured Latin American integration over relations with Washington. This policy was fully reversed following his impeachement, but it remains in Libre's manifesto. Thus, the news of Zelaya's political return through Nasralla might not be greeted with great enthusiasm in the White House.

As such, it does not come to a surprise that the US State Department has qualified the situation as a Honduran "internal affair" and in the midst of this current crisis has even awarded it with the recognition of a "human rights defending" nation. These actions are the complete opposite of Washington's more hawkish approach towards the other Latin American countries with which it is not allied. It might be a blank cheque for Honduras to keep out a non-US aligned government from forming in the country.

The TSE has responded that it would agree to the OAS's recommendation of conducting a recount of voting tallies, albeit without the supervision of an international impartial electoral observer. Nasralla himself has announced that he would not recognise a final result declared under these conditions.

How the current crisis will conclude is yet to be seen. If the OAS does not use this opportunity to show that it does not practice double standards, then it might spell the end of its attempts at regaining regional relevance. It could be eclipsed once again by solely Latin American organisations that exclude the US. Maybe the election will finally be held in a transparent manner and either Nasralla or Hernandez result as the victors. Or perhaps the status quo will remain and the situation will eventually calm down. However, the history of Latin America is characterised by the combination of violence and politics. To declare a definite winner through any process that is widely regarded as fraudulent by Hondurans can be very dangerous.

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