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Honduran muddle: Elections and international mismanagement
John W. Graham
On June 28, 2009 the Honduran military illegally deposed the sitting president, Manuel Zelaya. Notwithstanding appeals concerning Zelaya’s abuses of the Constitution and the fact that the interim presidency had been turned over to the next civilian in line, the Organization of American States (OAS) responded swiftly and unanimously. Honduras was suspended from the OAS and economic sanctions were imposed. A powerful message was sent to potential military conspirators: the penalty for coups is high. It was expected that this high price would quickly force the de factogovernment into conceding OAS demands and returning Zelaya to power. But the de facto administration, backed by the courts, Congress and the Church, and antagonized by what they believed was the absence of an even-handed approach to the crisis, refused to concede and the situation degenerated into an abrasive stalemate.
There was a route out of the quagmire: the elections long scheduled for Nov. 29, 2009. However, few were prepared to take it. The principal exceptions were Panama, latterly the United States, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, the quiet misgivings of Canada, Colombia and one or two others. However, the OAS and the majority of its members were so resolutely committed to imposing their solution—the return of Zelaya— that they refused to take the election process seriously. More than that, the OAS pronounced an anathema on the process saying that legitimate elections could not take place while an illegitimate government was in power and that the results of such an election would not be recognized.
Nothing characterizes the path of the Honduran crisis so much as the rise and fall of expectations. Virtually every phase in the five months of shuttle diplomacy, whether involving the United States, the OAS, or the international mediator and President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias, opened on a promising note and then crashed. However, one surprisingly solid achievement stands out, and that was the election process of Nov. 29.
The prospects, both in Honduras and abroad, that the elections would be largely unflawed and held in an atmosphere of relative calm were very low. The loose coalition of groups opposed to the coup —la Resistencia—, who were promoting an election boycott, were confidently forecasting an abstention rate of roughly 60 per cent. This prognosis for low voter turn-out was reinforced by an increase in threats and intimidation against opposition groups and individuals. The surge had been unleashed by the government-imposed “state of siege” which suspended constitutional guarantees for part of the campaign.
Much of this violence appears to have been committed by members of the security forces acting on the presumption that the special circumstances conferred immunity upon them. They encouraged the notion that the Resistencia was violent and irresponsible.
With the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (SET) firmly siding with interim President Roberto Micheletti on Zelaya’s expulsion, concern was expressed in some quarters that the election authorities might be prepared to manipulate the result or inflate the level of turn-out to suit their purposes. Pre-election questions about the reliability of the process were reinforced by knowledge that the voters list had not been purged of dead or emigrated persons for several years, a number estimated at almost one quarter of the list.
It was against these low expectations that the election took place. Some misgivings were justified. Abuses and stubborn political division contaminated the long pre-electoral period. The campaign was marked by human rights abuses, the suspension of press freedom for selected opposition media, politically motivated dismissals and increasing economic decline.
Yet in the end, it was a remarkable day. Portfirio Lobo, the winner, was congratulated and Elvin Santos, the loser, capitulated. Given the setting, the constraints and the miseries of the campaign period, it was astonishing that the Honduran election authorities could bring off such a success. However, a good election is not much good in Central America if it is not recognized internationally. The major international organizations, including the OAS, refused to field an observer team. A host of countries —most of the hemisphere— announced that they would not recognize the elections. The SET made up this gap by inviting more than 100 observers who were well-disposed to Micheletti. However, this group did not follow the principles of objective election observation and their judgments were of little value.
Significantly the United States, in cautiously ambiguous language, did not join this group and therein lay the key to an unexpectedly credible observation. Increasingly concerned that the de facto government would hold out, the U.S. authorized the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to mobilize a small team. Their work and most particularly the training that they provided for their Honduran civil society partner, a coalition of local NGOs called Hagamos Democracia, was invaluable in providing reliable coverage of the election process. With 1,500 members deployed across the country, it was able to provide a consolidated and objective assessment of the election process, its calculations on the voting for presidential candidates and its findings on voter turnout.Hagamos Democracia’s projections on the presidential vote were almost identical to those of the SET. Both the government, which had forecast a massive turnout, and theResistencia, which had predicted a massive boycott, were proven wrong. With total numbers on the voters’ list lowered to accommodate death and migration, it is probable that the actual participation exceeded 50 per cent, which is not a bad turnout in the Honduran context.
But a year after, the crisis is still not over. Despite recognition by many governments, the gradual return of development assistance, Honduras remains a hemispheric pariah and is still suspended from the OAS and from other inter-American groups. Unrelenting pressures from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) explain, in part, the lack of any movement at the OAS. However, the largest stone blocking the full return of Honduras to the international community is not Venezuela; it is South America’s most respected heavyweight: Brazil. With a fairly-elected president in power and the appointment of a promising Truth Commission under Eduardo Stein, which is getting technical support from the OAS, it is difficult to understand Brazil’s ongoing punitive approach to Honduras. The principal victims are the people of Honduras, the third most impoverished state of the Americas.
John Graham is Chair emeritus of FOCAL. He observed the 2009 Honduran elections.