Honduras’ presidential election is mired in controversy as the country’s Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspended the release of results on Sunday night when president Juan Orlando Hernández was trailing left-wing candidate Salvador Nasralla by 5 percentage points, with 58.5% of polling stations counted. There is no precedent in Honduras for such a blackout on the release of election results and many observers are worried—with good reason—that electoral fraud might take place.
First, some context. Juan Orlando Hernández was barred from running for reelection. Honduras’ constitution is famous in Latin America for its repeated emphasis on presidential term limits. It says that any person who has held the office of the presidency cannot be president or vice president again. Moreover, it states that under no circumstance can the constitution be amended to allow for presidential re-election. In 2009, Juan Manuel Zelaya was removed from power by a Supreme Court ruling for organizing an illegal referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow for his reelection.
Then, things changed. In December 2012, the National Assembly—whose speaker at that time was Juan Orlando Hernández—sacked four justices of the Constitutional Court for voting down several government pet projects. In April 2015, the Constitutional Court—with four new justices—struck down the prohibition on presidential reelection claiming it violated human rights. This allowed Hernández to contest this year’s election, even though the popular legitimacy of his reelection bid was always contested.
As president, Hernández built a reputation of a strongman. With the strategic help of the Liberal Party, Hernández implemented much of his economic and security agenda in Congress. Crime has gone down significantly under his watch and public finances have improved. He also became a Washington favorite for his perceived collaboration in fighting drug trafficking. But there are also widespread concerns about his increasingly authoritarian rule and the control he exerts on otherwise independent institutions such as the Supreme Court and the TSE. Tax authorities are fond of harassing businesses and independent professionals.
Polls indicated that Hernández was going to win reelection comfortably. However, on election night Nasralla—who leads a coalition that includes Zelaya supporters—came ahead when the first results were reported. This did not stop Hernández from declaring himself the winner (Nasralla had done the same even before the TSE released the first results). Then came the blackout from the TSE. The head of the electoral body says that the results from rural polling stations cannot be reported until the votes are counted in the capital, (although such a thing did not happen in previous elections). Rumors—spread mostly by members of the ruling National Party—claim that Hernández has overcome Nasralla’s lead and will win by a small margin.
The stage is set for a political crisis. Nasralla’s supporters are already in the streets denouncing a fraud in the making. Their strategy all along was to denounce an electoral fraud if their candidate was defeated, no matter the margin. But now, they have good reason to suspect one. If Hernández is declared the winner, his legitimacy will be very questionable. Honduras could enter a very dangerous period.