How to Deal with Honduras’ Quagmire

There are good reasons to believe that fraud took place in Honduras’ presidential election. The Economist did a statistical analysis of the election results and found “reasons to worry” about the integrity of the vote—although they were not conclusive. A report from the Organization of American States Observation Mission points out “irregularities, mistakes, and systemic problems plaguing this election [that] make it difficult… to be certain about the outcome.”

At the heart of the controversy is how the results of the presidential election shifted dramatically after a blackout in the release of information that lasted nearly 38 hours. A first report released by the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on Monday 27 November at 1:30 am (ten hours after polls closed and after both leading contenders had declared themselves the winners) showed opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla leading incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández 45.17% versus 40.21%, with 57.18% of tally sheets from polling stations counted.

Then came the blackout, during which officials from Hernandez’s National Party argued that the results would be reversed once the release of information resumed. Their claim was that the tally sheets initially reported came from polling stations in urban areas, whereas the National Party strongholds are in rural areas. Indeed, when the TSE began releasing information again on Tuesday afternoon, Nasralla’s five point lead steadily declined and then disappeared. With almost all votes counted, Hernández is now ahead by 1.6 points.

Other irregularities documented by the OAS include missing tally sheets, opened and incomplete containers with electoral material from polling stations, and undisclosed criteria for processing the ballots that arrived at the TSE collection center.

What now? The opposition is demanding a full Florida-style recount. This would prolong the uncertainty about who won the election, but given the extent of irregularities, it seems a fair request. However, some officials from Nasralla’s camp also claim that the election has been irretrievably tainted. Nasralla himself proposed a run-off vote with Hernández, but the constitution does not allow for such possibility. The real danger is that the opposition will reject anything short of a repeat of the election, even if there is a transparent recount. A repeat of the election, expensive as it is, would also create an ominous precedent for contesting close election results in the future.

It is also fair to say that Nasralla’s camp is not likely to concede defeat under any circumstances. His left-wing coalition—conspicuously named the “Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship”—was going to cry foul if Nasralla was defeated, regardless of the margin. He also reneged on a signed pledge to respect the result emanating from the TSE and threatened to continue the chaos brought about by his supporters “until the country comes to an end.” Instead of being a responsible actor during the crisis, Nasralla is increasingly giving the impression that he does not want an institutional solution to it. For example, Nasralla has yet to file a formal challenge to the election, despite the fact that a legal deadline was extended until Friday in order to give his Alliance more time to do so. He has not presented evidence of manipulated tally sheets either.

There are no easy ways out of this quagmire and it is likely that one side will end up feeling cheated. Still, a solution needs to be worked out: The TSE should facilitate the verification of all the 18,103 tally sheets and, if anomalies arise, allow for a recount of those where there are discrepancies. This process should be closely monitored by observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union. It is their task to serve as ultimate arbiters and certify whether the conditions have been met for a transparent verification and recount process.

A post-election institutional arrangement could be part of the solution: Since Honduras’ Constitutional Court struck down the prohibition on presidential reelection, the Congress should establish non-consecutive reelection (such as in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay). In addition, a run-off should be introduced for presidential elections. Finally, the appointment of the TSE justices should be taken away from Congress and given to the Supreme Court in order to guarantee their impartiality.