Twenty-four people have been killed by police in demonstrations since the presidential election in Honduras three weeks ago. The centre-left Alliance, headed by Salvador Nasralla, appeared to be the clear winner after 57 per cent of votes had been counted, but a suspiciously dramatic late swing towards the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, gave him a lead of 1.5 per cent when the final count was in. Protests against election fraud sprang up nationwide. Some police units initially refused to take part in repressing them, but they were bought out with pay rises and, allegedly, bribes to top police officers.
The electoral tribunal (TSE) appeared willing to accept legal challenges to the electoral process, but a partial recount produced the same result and they ignored the Alliance's demand for a full, public recount of votes with international observers and all parties present. Marco Ramiro Lobo, the electoral magistrate who had said that Nasralla's lead in the early results was irreversible, told BBC World that a full recount was needed.
The TSE received the backing of the US Embassy, which called only for ‘dialogue’ between the parties, and appeared to pave the way for a winner to be declared once the partial recount was done. The US also helped by certifying that Honduras was making sufficient progress towards improving human rights to allow it to continue getting US aid. Asked about the timing of this announcement, as people were being killed on the streets, the State Department said: ‘This was just something that it was done when it was done.’
Hernández, his National party and the right-wing media did their best to distract attention from the protests with other news, such as announcing a big house building programme. Reporters pursuing evidence of electoral fraud were harassed by the police; foreign journalists were denied entry at the airport. The transmission mast used by a popular left-wing radio station mysteriously collapsed. Nationwide protests last Friday got little media attention.
A week after the TSE declared that its recount had produced no evidence of fraud, it still hadn’t found an opportune moment to proclaim Hernández the winner. Then the president’s sister, a former minister, was killed in a helicopter crash on Saturday morning. Media attention switched to the causes of the accident and the recovery of the bodies from the mountains where it happened. Late on Sunday, as Nasralla flew to Washington to present evidence of electoral fraud to the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the US State Department, the TSE confirmed that Hernández had been re-elected.
Soon afterwards, the OAS announced the conclusions of its mission to observe the elections. The mainstream press in Honduras reported that its tallies coincided with those of the TSE. Other findings got less coverage: the election had been of ‘poor quality’ and ‘low integrity’, and the true result was still in doubt. After the OAS press conference, Luis Almagro its general secretary and usually a reliable US ally, tweeted: 'General Secretariat of the OAS proposes new elections in order to guarantee peace and harmony in Honduras given the impossibility of certainty of the election results.'
The OAS then published independent analysis by Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University. He pointed to the remarkable change in reported voter behaviour once 68 per cent of the results were in: until then, Nasralla had a clear lead in most polling stations; afterwards, his lead and most of his votes vanished, turnout soared and the resultant advantage to Hernández was enough to make him winner. 'On the basis of this analysis,' Nooruddin concluded, 'I would reject the proposition that the National Party won the election legitimately.'
By Sunday night, road blocks and protests were growing around the country. Mel Zelaya, the former president deposed in the 2009 coup and now a key figure in the Alliance, said yesterday that the National Party doesn't have a problem with the OAS, but with the Honduran people.