Hard Times in Honduras

John Perry

A week after apparently losing an election in which he was constitutionally barred from standing, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, now seems to have carried out a coup (‘autogolpe’ in Spanish) to keep himself in power.

Hernández (known as JOH, pronounced ‘Ho’) went into the election last Sunday (26 November) promising to continue his firm-handed approach ('la mano dura') to violent crime. His opponent, Salvador Nasralla, led a centre-left alliance promising to end the ‘dictatorship’, tackle corruption and restore much-depleted public services. Despite growing support for the alliance, Nasralla’s supporters feared that Hernández’s control over the main branches of government, including the electoral tribunal (TSE), would allow him to keep power even if he lost the popular vote. The day before the poll, the Economist published evidence of the methods his party might use to fix the result.

In the last election, in 2013, the results were announced quickly as polling stations submitted them electronically. This time, the TSE didn’t publish provisional figures until the early hours of the 27th. Based on 57 per cent of the votes, Nasralla had a surprising 5 per cent lead. He duly declared himself the winner. One of the electoral magistrates said that the margin was too wide for JOH to close the gap. The third-placed candidate conceded defeat to Nasralla.

But JOH insisted the final result would return him to power. As if paralysed by his statement, the TSE stopped counting votes. They resumed after both main candidates signed an agreement saying they would stand by the outcome. Shortly afterwards, a five-hour power cut blacked out the election centre. When counting restarted, the results slowly began to show a very different picture: instead of more than half of each tranche of votes typically going to the alliance, they began to fall 3:2 in favour of JOH. By Wednesday evening, he’d taken a narrow lead; by Friday morning, with 94 per cent of votes counted, it had grown to more than 46,000. The journalist Carlos Dada tweeted: 'There are only two possibilities: either the TSE is of Olympic incompetence or it’s committing fraud.'

The opposition cried foul and demonstrators took to the streets. The alliance claimed that the TSE’s tallies from polling stations, of which they had copies, should have shown on polling day that they had won. National turnout hovered between 50 and 55 per cent, but in the three departments where JOH’s support was expected to be highest, the official count – from the TSE rather than polling stations – now gave turnouts of 70 per cent or more. The opposition demanded that disputed figures be independently checked; the TSE said no. Counting resumed yesterday.

The outcome, announced today, puts JOH ahead by 1.59 per cent. The Organisation of American States, which is observing the election along with the EU, has joined the call for the alliance’s demands to be addressed; the TSE appears to have conceded. This will delay the final result by several days even if it does not change it. But with such a tight margin, whichever side ‘loses’ is likely to reject the result.

On Friday, JOH carried out his ‘autogolpe’, suspending key articles of the constitution, giving enhanced powers to the army and imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The demonstrations had turned violent, but only after the police began firing live rounds, killing eight protesters. Turning the streets over to the armed forces is a repeat of what happened after the military coup in 2009, when the reformist president Mel Zelaya was forced from office – falsely accused of wanting to run for an illegal second term.

Karen Spring, the local co-ordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network, said at the weekend that 'we are shifting into a new level of repression and hard times in Honduras.' But on Sunday a massive, peaceful march in Tegucigalpa denounced the electoral fraud, and ordinary people have been on the streets in defiance of the curfew, banging pots and pans and singing: 'JOH, JOH es pa' fuera te vas' ('JOH, JOH out you go').