Monday, November 25, 2013

With half Honduran votes counted, two candidates claim victory

Juan Orlando Hernandez (centre, white shirt) leads supporters in election night prayer

It’s never a great thing when two candidates claim election victory and the ballot counting stalls just past the halfway point.
That’s the situation in Honduras this morning, with National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez and Libre leader Xiomara Castro Zelaya claiming victory. (It does make you appreciate the custom in Canada of waiting for rivals to concede defeat.)
When the TSE - the Honduran version of Elections Canada - quit counting at midnight, Orlando had 34 per cent of the vote and Zelaya 27 per cent. That makes him the likely winner, but only 54 per cent of the vote had been counted. Things could change.
Juan Orlando and the National Party are right of centre, Xiomara left. The National Party has been in power for the last four years, and Juan Orlando has been the head of the Congress. The government has been hopeless.
But his campaign had a lot of money and stressed law and order, especially using the army to patrol the streets. Crime is a real issue for Hondurans, with the highest murder rate in the world and gangs practising extortion on a wide scale.
Xiomara Castro and Libre are brand new. Her husband, Mel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup and the party arose from the opposition. The showing is impressive, and Libre relegated the Liberal Party - which has alternated governing with the Nationals in a two-party system - to third place (21 per cent). Another new party, the Anti-Corruption Party, headed by a TV personality, has captured 16 per cent based on the counting so far.
The elections officials are supposed to start giving new updates at noon. It’s unclear why there is such a long delay.
Partly, it’s understandable. There’s a system for transmitting results from polling stations, but about 10 per cent don’t have electricity or Internet. 
And the ballots are complex. Honduras holds national and municipal elections at the same time. 
The national elections include Congresssional seats. Our department, Copan, gets seven seats in the 128-seat Congress. So the ballot includes seven candidates from each of the eight parties, or 56 names. Literacy is low, so each candidate’s colour picture, with a graphic to show party affiliation, is also on the ballot, making for a giant document more than twice the size of a newspaper page.
There’s no indication who will control Congress, which is also important.
The election, it appears, went better than some people feared. There were allegations of vote-buying and fraud and intimidation, probably well-founded, but international observers generally found the process worked. (It likely helped that observers and others could share problems instantly on Twitter and blogs. It’s harder to commit fraud, at least in urban areas, when so many eyes are watching.)
There was lots of unease about the aftermath. 
People feared the country’s elite would not tolerate a Libre victory. (That’s one of the problems with the coup, which ended 27 years of democracy. Once powerful forces toss out an elected president, everyone believes it could happen again.)
And others fear Libre supporters will take to the streets - at least in the big cities - if they lose and suspect fraud.
So far, all is quiet. 
The Economist published a blog update on the elections, and suggested serious protest is unlikely. “Hondurans have a history of long-suffering passivity: when their neighbours were all caught up in civil wars in the 1980s, they were almost comatose," the writer noted.
Not necessarily a good thing, perhaps, but reassuring for those hoping for a peaceful response to the election results - whenever they finally come.

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