Thoughts on the Election in Honduras

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[Image via National Democratic Institute]

Despite the attempts by Zelaya’s supporters to derail the election–including calling for a boycott and setting explosive devices–the conservative National party candidate Porfirio Lobo has defeated his rivals by receiving close to 56 percent of the vote. Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos received 30 percent. Zelaya’s attempt to reduce voter turnout appears to have failed.

Turnout was higher than expected but there is some discrepancy in the number of voters who participated. As reported by Americas Quarterly, “[t]he electoral tribunal reported a 61.3 percent voter turnout rate while Hagamos Democracia, which conducted the electoral tribunal’s quick count, noted that 47.6 percent of Hondurans voted.”

While a Heritage Foundation report notes, “the widespread resistance threatened by Zelaya’s supporters was mainly a campaign of disinformation” and includes the following statement:

Voting stations were accessible to all, adequately supplied with carefully controlled voting materials and fully staffed and supported by national observers from participating political parties. International observers witnessed no voter intimidation by any group, individual, or party. Other incidents reported to observers, such as late openings and locked voting stations, were quickly resolved and did not significantly disrupt the voting process.

The Frente Nacional de la Resistencia disputes these accounts:

With complete satisfaction we announce to the Honduran People and the international community that the electoral farce set up by the dictatorship regime has been absolutely defeated due to the low turn-out of voters at the poll sites, to the extent that the Supreme Electoral Tribune had to prolong the poll another hour until 5 p.m.

You don’t need glasses to see what is in front of your eyes. Nation-wide monitoring by our organization proved that the level of abstention during the process is at least of 60-75% percent, which is the highest in our national history, and implies that only a maximum of 30 – 35% of registered voters voted.

The United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Israel, Japan and Germany say they would recognize the results. I expect more countries will soon follow suit. While Zelaya’s foreign supporters–Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela–claim they will not. The Spanish government, will “neither recognize nor ignore” the results of the election. The Miami Herald notes:

The deposed leader finds himself in a precarious position. Just five months ago, world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stood behind Zelaya, condemning Honduras for his ouster and calling for his return.

Now, regional leaders who once cut off talks with Honduras’s defacto government, offered support for the newly elected government. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said he would talk to other Ibero-American countries to recognize the future Honduran government, according to the Associated Press.

Mary O’Grady (WSJ), who has provided some of the best coverage of developments in Honduras opines:

The losers in this drama also include Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Spain, which all did their level best to block the election. Egged on by their zeal, militants inside Honduras took to exploding small bombs around the country in the weeks leading to the vote. They hoped that terror might damp turnout and delegitimize the process. They failed. Sunday’s civic participation appeared to be at least as good as it was in the last presidential election. Some polling stations reportedly even ran short, for a time, of the indelible ink used to mark voter pinkies…

[T]he leftist claims that Honduras could not hold fair elections flew in the face of the facts. First, the candidates were chosen in November 2008 primaries with observers from the OAS, which judged the process to be “transparent and participative.” Second, all the presidential candidates—save one from a small party on the extreme left—wanted the elections to go forward. Third, though Mr. Insulza insisted on calling the removal of Mr. Zelaya a “military coup,” the military had never taken charge of the government. And finally, the independent electoral tribunal, chosen by congress before Mr. Zelaya was removed, was continuing with the steps required to fulfill its constitutional mandate to conduct the vote. In the aftermath of the elections Mr. Insulza, who insisted that the group would not recognize the results, presides over a discredited OAS…

In my Sunday roundup, Bob mentioned a few things that he has found troubling. In particular, what he identified as the “pretty heavy repression by the coup government” which included the “blocking of Canal 36, the violent attack on peaceful protestors in San Pedro de Sula, the raids on and military cordons around leftist, indigenous and campesino organisations, the blanket militarisation of the country on polling day, and so on.”

I agree that police and military crackdowns on genuinely peaceful demonstrations conducted by any political group or element of civil society should be condemned. However, when activists start breaking windows,  setting fires and constructing barricades preventing free movement–let alone when they start hurling rocks, petrol bombs, or displaying clubs, machetes or other weapons–the security forces have an obligation to maintain law and order.

Regarding the shutdown of Canal 36, the emergency decree that shut down the station was lifted by interim president Micheletti on Oct. 6. A week and a half after being implemented (Sep. 26). So this was hardly anything long-term or even medium-term. It was a short-term measure that the interim government thought was necessary given the chaotic political climate in the country after Zelaya was removed from office.

Bob also noted that the Frente Nacional de la Resistencia has claimed the explosive devices were set by provocateurs. He finds this “plausible…as there is no motive for Zelaya’s supporters to do it.” Yet, as I pointed out in my comment, there is at least one major motive for Zelaya’s supporters to engage in this sort of political violence. They were the ones calling for a boycott of the election. If these attacks had lead to low voter turnout, Zelaya’s supporters would have used this as evidence that the elections were illegitimate, that the new government has no mandate, etc. etc. etc.

The possibility of right-wing provocateurs crossed my mind as well. But I think in this case, the political forces that wanted to repress voter turnout were those who are afraid of losing, i.e. the forces loyal to Zelaya. All polls showed the conservative candidate ahead by double-digits. So I don’t think they are behind this.

I would be remiss if I did not include what leftist periodicals are squawking about in response to the election results. In this case, a link to the Guardian will suffice (h/t to Flesh is Grass for pointing me to this). The author, Rory Carroll, states “foreign governments lined up to condemn the vote as a whitewash” and that “many Hondurans boycotted it.”

However, many governments–including Latin American governments that opposed the ouster of Zelaya–have recognized the election results. And as mentioned above, it appears the number of Hondurans who participated was between fifty and sixty percent. That is a higher percentage of participation than most presidential elections in the United States and many other democracies.

As to why the conservative candidate won, Carroll is convinced the election was rigged by conniving economic elites. In particular the descendants of Jewish and Palestinian immigrants who “dominate banking, insurance, manufacturing, telecommunications and media, including TV and newspapers.”  I think the correspondent has been spending too much time listening to his ideological comrades at Radio Globo.

I hope the elections pave the way for an easing of tensions between Honduras and the United States and an end to calls for sanctions and political isolation. Perhaps most importantly, the courage of Honduran democrats and the strength of Honduran democratic institutions provides an example to Central and South Americans that the form of jingoistic populism supported by Hugo Chavez and his allies can and will be challenged.

ADDED (Thursday December 3):

The Honduran Congress voted against allowing Zelaya to serve the final two months of his term. The vote was close to unanimous with 111 legislators against Zelaya and 14 supporting him. In case readers are unaware, the congress is dominated by Zelaya’s own Liberal Party. The AP reports:

Lawmaker after lawmaker insisted Wednesday that they were right the first time when they voted to oust Zelaya for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on changing the constitution. That vote happened hours after soldiers stormed into Zelaya’s residence and flew him into exile in his pajamas.

Zelaya opponents accuse him of trying to hang on to power by lifting a ban on presidential re-election, as his leftist ally Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela. Zelaya denies such intentions.

“My vote is (a lesson) for anyone who pretends to perpetuate himself in power. My vote is so that my son can look at me and say ‘Dad you defended democracy,”‘ said Antonio Rivera of Lobo’s conservative National Party.

ADDED (Saturday December 5):

Here are some comments from Bob that are important to address:

[T]here has been some violence from anti-coup protestors. I am not saying that this is a black and white issue and the coup regime were purely baddies and the pro-Zelaya forces purely goodies. The anti-coup movement has taken a variety of forms, and some of them are unsavoury. But the acts of violence have been fairly marginal – the disturbios youTubes show small numbers of masked up young people and could be countered to any number of youTubes showing purely non-violent protests involving large numbers of people of all sorts. I also think that the illegitimacy of the coup regime changes the terms, and a blanket condemnation of all kinds of violence against it is therefore not necessarily right.

Protests and protesters are a mixed bag. Some, if not most, people behave nonviolently and some people behave violently. However, when protesters get out of hand–even when they are a small minority–and start breaking windows, throwing rocks and petrol bombs, etc, the police respond in a general fashion by shutting the protests down. I think this is the way police respond in many, if not most, democracies. I know it is how the police respond in the U.S. Here is a post from Nov. 25 by an organization that supports Zelaya claiming, “the dictatorship arms itself with weapons and munitions of death.” The weapons in question? An armored truck with a watercannon and teargas.

The use (I would say misuse) of the term “coup” is the key to the large difference in our perspectives. As I have stated elsewhere, there was no coup in Honduras. I realize this is not a popular position to take with most of my friends and associates, the U.S. State Department, or the Organization of American States (OAS) but a classic coup d’etat is where the military seizes power and abolishes democratic institutions. This never happened in Honduras. Instead, the military acted according the demands of the legislative and judicial branches. It was a constitutional use of the military and not a coup.

I know I am in the minority taking this position but I think it is the correct position to take in this case. I think most of the Honduran people–with the exception of Zelaya’s supporters–agree. When they told people outside of their country, “look, this is not a coup, everything was done according to our constitution and the rule of law,” I listened to them, not the State Department or the OAS.

I also think that the repression should not be whitewashed as a temporary measure to restore order. The closure of media outlets, temporary or not, and the miltiarisation of public space are NOT conducive to democracy. We condemn these things when Chavez does them. (The media outlets Chavez closed were involved in the coup there; his justification exactly mirrors that used by the coup regime.) For these reasons, the election’s validity was completely undermined.

There is a huge difference between short-term measures that are done during times of political instability and long-term measures that become hallmarks of a particular regime. If Chavez had shut down these outlets for a few weeks or even a month I would agree with you. But Chavez shuts down media and other interests that are critical of him and then has his government take them over. Here were are, almost eight years after the attempted coup and “Chavez’s government is moving forcefully to silence critics by introducing a Media Crimes bill that would give it sweeping authority to jail journalists, media executives, and bloggers who report on anything that the government considers to be harmful to state interests.” He has also taken over banks the iron and steel industries and other sectors of the economy.

Can’t you see a difference here? Nothing like this has occurred in Honduras. The two stations were shut down for a few weeks. That is it. Once the situation stabilized they were allowed to broadcast again.

It seems to be hard to find reliable figures about turnout, with some news sources giving figures like 66% (typical in Honduran elections) but others more like 35%. As far as I can tell, less than 2 million people voted in an electorate of over 4 million.

What legitimate sources claim the turnout was 35%? All that I have read mentions the percentage varies between a low of about 48% and a high somewhere in the 60s. The election that placed Zelaya in power had a participation rate of 46% and nobody on the left was up in arms about those results.

The elections were characterised by assassinations, dissappearances, detentions, politically motivated arrests, blockades of opposition buildings.

There were international observers present for the election and none of them support this perspective. I realize VenezuelaAnalysis.com, NarcoNews, Cuban media and some far-left sites claim this is the case, but most reports I have read claim the election was largely peaceful. Bloomberg statesHonduras voted amid relative calm”. Even the NYT, no fans of the interim government, describe  “a police and military presence in the capital” with no reports of violence.

The police presence is understandable  given the fact that Zelaya’s supporters stated they planned on disrupting the election. If the police were intimidating people and preventing them from voting, this needs to be condemned. But if they were preventing belligerents from intimidating people who wanted to vote, this ought to be supported.

OK, am convinced there have been some explosive devices. Some of the reportage seems a little dodgy though, with these shadowy Nicaraguans, the Russian and Chinese weapons, and the Guatemalan passenger plane… It seems wrong to me to attribute them to the “resistance movement”; there seems little or no evidence for that.

Zelaya’s supporters (including “the resistance movement”) are the ones who wanted to disrupt the elections. I don’t see it as much of stretch to acknowledge their biggest supporters outside the country are found in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, places where Russian and Chinese weapons are rather common.

Approximately a week before the election, the AP reported (Nov 25) “on Nov. 12, assailants fired an anti-tank grenade toward a building where ballots for the presidential election were stored.” And in the same article, “Honduran police detained two Nicaraguans and two Hondurans along with several rifles, and interim President Roberto Micheletti claimed the weapons were part of a plot to attack him during Sunday’s presidential election.” If I were a betting man (which I am not) I would wager those rifles were made in China or Russia.

[National Party candidate and victor Porfirio Lobo (r) shakes the hand of Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos (l)]

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4 responses »

  1. A few points.

    1. Canal 36 was reinstated, but it has made allegations about the blocking of its signal during news broadcasts. I beleive the de facto government also siezed equipment which it never gave back. The ban was utterly unjustified, and if it had been carried out by the likes of Chavez or Putin we would be rightly outraged.

    2. The level of violence from the protestors was, as far as I can tell, pretty low. The explosive devices you mention were marginal.

    3. The level of actual turnout seems to be highly contended, and I cannot find a clear and reliable source. I’ve read everything from 30% to 70%. The few sources that give numbers rather than percentages talk about less than 2 million voting in an electorate of over 4 million.

    4. The pronouncements by the de facto government about the policing, about the explosive devices and about the turnout have been self-contradictory and have the ring of dishonesty about them. They sound to me exactly like the pronouncements of the Chavez, Mushareff, Putin or Ahmedinijad regimes.

  2. Sorry to go on, but I thought I’d re-post what I wrote at the other thread, as it is not so current:

    On the wider points in your second response, certainly there has been some violence from anti-coup protestors. I am not saying that this is a black and white issue and the coup regime were purely baddies and the pro-Zelaya forces purely goodies. The anti-coup movement has taken a variety of forms, and some of them are unsavoury. But the acts of violence have been fairly marginal – the disturbios youTubes show small numbers of masked up young people and could be countered to any number of youTubes showing purely non-violent protests involving large numbers of people of all sorts.

    I also think that the illegitimacy of the coup regime changes the terms, and a blanket condemnation of all kinds of violence against it is therefore not necessarily right.

    I also think that the repression should not be whitewashed as a temporary measure to restore order. The closure of media outlets, temporary or not, and the miltiarisation of public space are NOT conducive to democracy. We condemn these things when Chavez does them. (The media outlets Chavez closed were involved in the coup there; his justification exactly mirrors that used by the coup regime.)

    For these reasons, the election’s validity was completely undermined.

    Even if we accept the need for a certain amount of security force intervention, the things that appear to have been happening in Honduras go way beyond this. If half the allegations made by the Frente Nacional (as well as other groups, including Amnesty and various international observers) are true, then there is at best serious disproportion between the violence of some elements of “the resistance” and that of the de facto government and its extra-state allies: assassinations and dissappearances of legitimate politicians; massive interference in the work of non-violent groups like campesino organisations, small business federations and grassroots democratic leftist organisations; interference in the opposition media.

    Sorry to go on!

  3. I copied and pasted your previous comments and responded to them in an update above.

    No worries about “going on”, I am glad you are commenting. I suspect some of my blogger pals like Flesh is Grass and Mod agree with your perspective. I know my position is very unpopular with most of the people I know. But sometimes you just have to agree to disagree.

  4. Thank you for your considered reply.

    I agree that the removal of Zelaya was not a coup d’etat in the classic sense. There were significant differences between the de facto government and earlier right-wing military dictatorships on the continent, although many leftist observers rushed very quickly to impose the same descriptive frame. My instincts, having been formed in the period of Contragate, the American-backed dictatorship in El Salvador, and so on, were similar, but I held them in check, and tried to find out more about the Honduras situation before taking a view. I still cannot claim any specialist knowledge about Honduras, and still do not know which sources to trust, and everything I say here (and in previous comments) should be read as heaviliy caveated.

    Nonetheless, it seems to me very clear that the Honduran constitution, like many Latin American constitutions, is a contradictory document, with lots of vague terminology and lots of scope for latitude, in dire need of reform. There is also no doubt that the changes to the constitution which Zelaya proposed might have spelled a drift towards the sort of electoral authoritarianism which we see in Venezuela. On the other hand, what was actually proposed was simply a constituent assembley, and any changes it might have legislated would have occured after Zelaya’s term was over. The present constitution has been amended some two dozen times, most of these in the last decade of democratic rule, so it is not in itself problematic to seek to further reform the constitution.

    The removal of Zelaya had elements which were in line with the existing constitution and elements which contradicted it. For example, his forcible expatriation was straightforwardly unconstitutional. the subsequent suspension of constitutional rights for 45 days by the de facto government was technically constitutional, but both unnecessary and against the spirit of democracy.

    A formalistic or legalistic interpretation of what counts as democracy or as constutional is, in my view, inadequate. It is inadequate for two reasons. First, the importance of interlocking forms of power and privilege – the role of oligarchy – in Honduras (as in elsewhere in Central America) undermine the integrity of the interpretations of law made by key state actors: the military, judiciary, legislature and media are in the hands of a tiny number of interrelated families. Second, it is perfectly possible to constrain genuine democracy while following the formal rule of law. The many “democratatorships” across the world, from Belorussia to Iran to Venezuela, make that clear. While the problem of Latin America in the 20th century was naked military dictatorship, its problem in the 21st is electoral authoritarianism.

    There seems to be an absence of decent news reportage from Honduras. There is a severe lack of international observers. The decision of the OAS and Spain not to send observers because it would have granted legitimacy to the election was a very foolish move. I have put a certain amount of faith in NarcoNews and WW4 Report, although I recognise them as partisan. Amnesty has reported a number of the abuses that these sites mention, altho I know some people see Amnesty as partisan too. See e.g. http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=18535

    For some of the more extreme claims I made, google Roger Iván Bados or Ramón García. I am not claiming that the de facto government directly assassinated these men, but as you know the oligarchy has not just the military and police at its disposal but also paramilitary and organised crime forces.

    The lack of decent news makes knowing the turnout problematic – but so does the utter lack of transparency from those in power, who have still, I believe, not released a detailed breakdown of polling station results. When this sort of fudge comes from the Iranian authorities we are suspicious, and we should be here too.

    Here are some of the accounts of turnout:
    the nonprofit group that the TSE [Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal] contracted to do exit polls, Fundación Hagamos Democracia (FHD), also disagreed with the official turnout projection of 61.3%. The FHD’s projection for turnout was about 47.6%, significantly lower than the 2005 turnout. At the Nov. 29 press conference, TSE magistrate Ortez Sequeira noted that the FHD’s exit polls were close to the TSE’s projections—except on the question of turnout. Skeptics also noted TSE president Saúl Escobar’s admission at the press conference that the electoral results were being delayed because of a technical problem in verifying the digitalized data. (El Tiempo, Nov. 30; Honduras Coup 2009 blog, Nov. 30) http://www.ww4report.com/node/8026

    Election officials in Honduras on Friday revised down the participation rate in controversial weekend elections from more than 60 percent to 49 percent. http://www.france24.com/en/node/4940819

    An independent group of observers estimated that the turnout number was 48 percent. “Because of a lack of serious election observation, it’s difficult to know exactly what the exact numbers are,” Daniel Altschuler, an independent political analyst in Honduras told CNN. However, a CNN calculation based on official figures provided by Supreme Electoral Tribunal spokesman Roberto Reyes Pineda shows that the actual voter turnout is 56.6 percent. http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/12/05/honduras.election.turnout/index.html

    Therefore, it seems that the Frente Nacional’s claims for large-scale abstention have turned out to be false, but the rulers’ claims for increased turnout and therefore secure legitimacy for the results is also false. (The Frente Nacional claim something like 60% turnout in 2005, which appears to be false, as most sources put it at around half, i.e. similar to this election.

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