Honduras votes against change – sort of

Apart from the second round of the Chilean presidential election on 15 December, which is very much a foregone conclusion, there’s not much electoral activity expected for the rest of the year. But a presidential election in Honduras on Sunday is worth a mention.

Honduras, in Central America, has hit the political headlines only twice in my recollection. Once was in the 1980s, when it was used by the United States as the main base for its proxy war against the Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua. The other time was four years ago, when then president Manuel Zelaya was removed from office in dubious circumstances, triggering a prolonged constitutional crisis.

Zelaya had been elected as a Liberal, Honduras’s traditional centrist party, but shifted to the left during his term of office. The country’s traditional elites engineered his removal in what most observers regarded as a coup (Guy Rundle’s slightly acerbic account at the time is well worth a read), but international indignation subsided after fresh elections were held and Zelaya was allowed to quietly go into exile. (He subsequently returned in 2011.)

The 2009 election was won by Porfirio Lobo, of the conservative National Party. Presidents are limited to a single term (it was Zelaya’s tentative efforts to amend that rule that got him into trouble), so Hondurans on Sunday voted for his replacement.

The Liberal and National parties for decades have maintained a cozy two-party system, so there is no provision for a runoff: it’s a single national first-past-the-post election. Unfortunately that’s a recipe for major injustice in a year like this, when there were four serious candidates (and eight in total, but the other four won less than 1% of the vote between them).

With 58% of polling places reporting, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal reports that the National Party’s Juan Hernández has a clear lead with 34.2% of the vote. Xiomara Castro, wife of former president Zelaya and candidate of the new leftist party, LIBRE, is running second on 28.8%, with the Liberal Party’s Mauricio Villeda on 20.8% and Salvador Nasralla, a television personality and anti-corruption campaigner, fourth with 15.6%.

The international media report that Hernández and Castro have both claimed victory. On those figures there’s no likelihood of Hernández losing, but it’s a consequence of Honduras’s history that most people have little confidence in the integrity of the electoral tribunal. As one report baldly puts it, “There is a long history of electoral fraud in Honduras.”

The fact that the preliminary results have been static for a long time – and indeed as of a few minutes ago (it’s now about 9pm Monday in Honduras) seem to have gone off-line entirely – doesn’t add to confidence, although such things often happen as a result of incompetence rather than dishonesty. According to Al-Jazeera’s reporter, “whatever this tribunal says, it’s going to be hard to convince the loser that this is an accurate count.”

As with many unfair elections, the problem is likely to be less in the electoral machinery itself than in the dominance of the media and the country’s institutions by the incumbents and the oligarchy that they represent. But in this case a special problem is the absence of a runoff.

If Castro had been able to benefit from the preferences of Villeda and Nasralla, her 5.8% deficit may well have been made up. As it is, the conservatives look to be safely in the saddle for another four years.

*UPDATE* 10.45pm Monday, Honduras time

The electoral tribunal’s website is back on line, and is now showing 67.7% of polling places reporting. Percentages are virtually unchanged:  Hernández 34.1%, Castro 28.9%, Villeda 20.7% and Nasralla 15.6%. Further updates to come if there are any interesting developments.

*FURTHER UPDATE* 7.20pm Tuesday, Honduras time

You can certainly see why people might have their doubts about this count. In what should be a full day’s worth of counting they’ve added only another 97 polling places, or about 20,000 votes. Not surprisingly, the percentages haven’t shifted.

The BBC quotes the president of the electoral tribunal saying “The figures that we have reported reflect a trend that is irreversible. The outcome is not going to change.” I’m sure that’s true, but it would be a better look if electoral officials refrained from making predictions and concentrated on actually counting the votes.

*FINAL(?) UPDATE* 6.30pm Wednesday, Honduras time

The electoral tribunal has now got a move on, with 81% counted. Both of the front-runners have picked up some ground at the expense of the third and fourth placegetters. Hernández is clearly the winner on 35.8%, followed by Castro on 29.2%, Villeda 20.2% and Nasralla 14.1%. Turnout is running at a reasonably healthy 61%.

Castro has refused to concede, claiming fraud, and has mobilised street protests, but her chance of actually overturning the result would appear to be slim.

There’s no sign of any congressional results yet, but the Guardian (via AP) reports that “Hernández will likely face a divided congress.”

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