Friday, November 24, 2017

Election Sunday

In Honduras, national elections are held on a Sunday in late November, every four years. Even in 2009, following the coup that removed the president, the national election process went on.

This year will mark the second presidential election after the coup. Two things emerged from that rupture that make this an unprecedented election day: viable opposition parties emerged; and the ruling party overturned the very part of the constitution that was claimed, however falsely, by supporters of the 2009 coup to be the cause of their actions, the constitutional bar against presidential re-election.

Two new national political movements, Libre (coming out of the coalition of resistance to the coup), and the Anti-corruption Party (led by a political outsider with substantial public visibility) ran candidates in the 2013 presidential election. Their officially recorded votes were more than the votes recorded for the candidate for the National Party that had regained power in the 2009 election. Because Honduras does not require any specific level of votes to win an election, the leading candidate from the National Party, with his minority of votes, was installed as president in 2014.

Of course, that doesn't take into account the widespread suppression of election workers, and the ensuing doubts about the validity of even the slim electoral victory the National Party gained. Since the installation of the current president, more and more details have come out about electoral corruption, and disclosures are rumored to involve family members of the sitting president.

Libre and the Anti-corruption party did not gain a majority of seats in the Honduran Congress in 2013, and the fourth major group, the Liberal Party, refused to join them in opposition.

So the National Party president has been able to pursue his aims for the last four years. While some reported decline in murder rates gets positive attention from international governments, on the ground, the level of violence in the cities is still high, and targeting of activists for the environment and human rights is just as much of a problem.

One of the most significant moves made by the current ruling party is the second feature that makes this year's election more significant than any since the current Honduran constitution was ratified, less than forty years ago. That was gaining the approval of the Honduran Supreme Court for presidential election. The Honduran Supreme Court justices are selected by the Congress, where the current president was previously head of Congress. The court whose composition he influenced then over-turned that part of the constitution.

So in this election, the sitting president is his party's candidate for election, with the ban on re-election removed, despite reports that almost two-thirds of the population oppose re-election.

Libre and the Anti-corruption Party have made a pact for the current presidential election, supporting a single candidate under the banner of alliance, Alianza. This candidate, the head of the Anti-corruption party, Salvador Nasralla, is also supported by one of the small parties that fill out the Honduran political landscape, PINU.

Unlike in the last election, when we were able to track multiple polls published in Honduras, we have little official polling data to draw on. The Honduran press landscape has changed: Tiempo, the one source we could count on for news that was not distorted to support the party in power, exists only as a shadow of its former self following the politically motivated prosecution of the family that owned it.

The last polling data published in Honduras in September, before a legally-mandated quiet period when no polls can be published, was sharply contested by the other parties. It reported the incumbent leading, again without a majority, drawing 37% of the vote. While there are more recent reports in newspapers in Mexico citing other polling companies, we have no information that would cause us to trust the polls they report. One was working for the National Party itself. The second came nowhere close to accuracy in the last election. None of the polls we have been able to review were published with sufficient information about methodology or margin of error, and we couldn't track any single poll over time as we did previously.

Private polling from Honduras that we have seen says that the National Party candidate is running behind the Alianza. So might common sense: Honduras has not been united by his presidency, trust in public institutions is no higher, the average Honduran is not materially better off, the country's GDP per capita has declined. The current president doesn't even have the support of all his party, many of whom continue to believe that the bar on re-election should be observed, even if it is legally not required.

And of course, the National Party candidate didn't actually gain the most votes last time. As long as the Libre voters and PINU voters from last time join the Anti-corruption voters, we would expect a plurality of votes for the Alianza. The role of spoiler will continue to be played by the remnants of the Liberal party, which could drain off enough of the voters opposed to re-election, ironically, to ensure a National Party victory. But we don't see it as a clear outcome, nor do Hondurans with whom we are in contact.

Which is why people in Honduras are convinced that there will be electoral manipulation. There are disinformation campaigns, like one this week claiming "Venezuelans" have entered the country to disrupt the election.

Venezuelans play the role of scary outsiders to raise echoes of ALBA, repudiated after the coup, to try to tar the Alianza with the ties of the Zelaya administration. The rumors that armed Venezuelans will commit violence also form a convenient pre-made cover story for any violence that might happen.

We also know of campaign workers for the Alianza who have been killed, as happened in the last election, when poll watchers for the opposition parties were not able to serve in all electoral venues.

But the main route to stealing this election that all Honduran observers expect is the same thing that occurred last time: manipulating the count of the votes at the level of the local ballot box. Stuffing of the ballot boxes was suspected last election from over-votes, when more people are reported to vote than are supposed to be registered. Intimidation of ballot watchers aided this, and there were notable correlations between over-voting and control of districts by drug families who supported the National Party.

The Alianza also suspects the possibility that the vote counts will be manipulated in some way at the level of the National Electoral Tribunal. The fear exists that software will somehow be open to corruption. One software vendor, owned by a National Party activist, was eliminated, but the lack of trust in the highest electoral authorities is palpable.

Sunday will mark a major turn in Honduran history. Either we will see the first re-election of a sitting president since the long dictatorship of Tiburcio Carías Andino ended in 1949; or we will see the election of the first president from a new party, formed in opposition to the political hegemony enjoyed by the Liberal and National Parties for most of the twentieth century, in between military dictatorships.

There will be international observers. How much they will see, how much they can watch, is questionable. The Alianza intends to have poll watchers at every electoral mesa, the local voting venues where votes are counted, the most likely place for false tallies to be introduced.

And we will be watching as well.

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