Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Update: Shaky Honduran election process adds to challenges for winner Juan Orlando

It appears Juan Orlando Hernandez has won the Honduran presidential election for his National Party. 
Libre is challenging the results and alleging fraud. There probably was some, but the reports from election observers suggest it wasn’t massive. (Probably not a good sign for a democracy when the takeaway headline is ‘No massive fraud,’ but still....)
Suspicions have rightly been aroused by the inept way the vote counting is proceeding. The polls closed Sunday at 5 p.m. Right now, noon Tuesday, a little more than two-thirds of the presidential ballots have been counted. Less than half the mayoral ballots in our town, Copan Ruinas, have been reported. And less than half the ballots for the congressional deputy election from our department have been counted and reported.
Worse, there has been no explanation for the delays and lots of reasons to wonder what has been going on.
By midnight Sunday, in the seven hours after the polls closed, 54 per cent of the presidential votes had been counted or reported.
Since then - another 36 hours - only an additional 14 per cent have been counted. Results from a large number of ballot boxes from the two cites still haven’t been reported, so it’s not a question of remote communities.
That’s bound to raise doubts about the process.
It was also odd, with National having 34 per cent of the votes and Libre 29 per cent, to have the election authorities declare Juan Orlando the winner with almost one-third of the votes uncounted.
It’s likely Juan Orlando captured the largest share of the votes. But the shaky electoral process will make his job even more difficult. 
Honduras is broke. There isn’t enough money to pay salaries or bills for the rest of this year. The government can borrow, but interest rates on the international bond market would be eight to 10 per cent, because of the risk.
The budget for next year has been prepared, then sealed in an envelope to avoid affecting the election campaign. (The proposed budget should have been a central issue in the election campaign, with all parties offering their plans. Instead it’s a secret, with weeks before the new budget year begins.)
The National Party has been in power for the last four years and has been unwilling or unable to increase tax revenues, by reducing evasion, eliminating exemptions or increasing rates. Tax revenue has actually fallen as a share of GNP. It has likewise shown no ability to reduce waste or corruption or slow spending.
So unless Juan Orlando can take the government in a new direction, the problems will just increase. And his challenges will be grow if congress is divided, as expected. (Again, it is bizarre that the composition of congress isn’t known almost two days after the polls closed.)
And Juan Orlando will have to deliver on his promise to reduce crime and insecurity by using the military to police the streets.
It’s good news, four years after the coup, that the election process went ahead, flaws and all.
But the same problems of Honduras are looming over Honduras today, with little evidence that effective action will be coming to deal with them.

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.