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Honduras To Hold Crucial Elections Amid Escalating Political Violence And Fears Of Fraud – OpEd

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By Simon Elliott

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This Sunday, November 28, Hondurans will head to the polls for crucial elections amid escalating political violence across the country. Voters will be electing a new president, the entirety of the 128-seat National Congress, every mayor of the country’s 298 municipalities, and over 2000 municipal councilors, as well as 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament.

At the presidential level, the leading contenders are ruling National Party candidate Nasry “Tito” Asfura and Xiomara Castro of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE). The most recent polling, from late October (Honduran law forbids polling within one month of scheduled elections) showed Castro with a significant lead over Asfura: 38 to 21 percent, with Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal well behind both.

Castro’s candidacy is supported by a broad coalition of forces opposed to the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández (often referred to by his initials “JOH”), which has been involved in far-reaching corruption within state institutions and has carried out violent repression targeting protest movements and activists. JOH’s brother, Tony Hernández, was sentenced to life in prison in the United States earlier this year for trafficking cocaine to the US, among other charges. JOH himself is under investigation by the US, and is believed to likely face prosecution once he leaves office. The stakes are high for Hernández, as Asfura may protect him from extradition should Asfura win the presidency, while other candidates are not likely to shield JOH (Rosenthal has already said he would consider extraditing Hernández should Rosenthal win).

Castro’s husband is former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a 2009 coup that succeeded thanks in part to the support of Obama administration officials, including then secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The 12 years since the 2009 coup have been marked by social, economic, and political crises. According to the World Bank, Honduras currently has the second-highest poverty rate in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world. All of these factors, along with serious human rights violations committed at the hands of state security forces and gangs, have contributed to the high rate of Honduran nationals — nearly one in ten — who have left the country in recent years.

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It is widely believed that electoral fraud was committed during the November 26, 2017 elections, which gave JOH a controversial second term in office. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot denounced at the time, the electoral process, including the initial tabulation and subsequent partial recount, severely lacked transparency and was rife with irregularities.

On December 17, the Organization of American States (OAS) Electoral Observation Mission released a statement raising concerns as to the validity of the electoral results released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) that same day.

The OAS is once again sending an electoral mission to Honduras for Sunday’s elections. The OAS’s role in creating a narrative of electoral fraud, however — without evidence — around Bolivia’s 2019 elections, have since cost the institution credibility, and have spurred new scrutiny of the OAS’s role in overturning elections in Haiti in 2000 and 2010 as well.

Mass mobilizations against electoral fraud broke out across the country. Security forces brutally repressed the protests, killing at least 31 and detaining more than 1,000 people in subsequent weeks.

As CEPR’s Alex Main explained in a piece published shortly after, the US was far from a neutral party in the 2017 elections. In a December 18, 2017 statement, the US State Department recognized the TSE results and ignored both clear irregularities in the vote count and calls for a redo of the election — including from the OAS. Instead, on December 22, the State Department congratulated JOH on his victory.

If the Biden administration intends to act on its claimed commitment to defending human rights and democracy in the hemisphere, and break with its pattern of unconditional support for corrupt, repressive, and undemocratic governments in Honduras, Sunday’s elections present a good opportunity to do that. To that end, nearly 30 members of the US Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, urging him to ensure that the US remains neutral in the Honduran electoral process and “support[s] an outcome that is genuinely democratic and inclusive.”

In a House Foreign Services Committee hearing last week, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols discussed his plans to visit Honduras to meet with government officials, civil society organizations, and high-ranking members of the Honduran armed forces and police before the elections. Nichols also assured Representative Joaquin Castro that the Blinken State Department will be “judicious in their remarks” regarding this weekend’s elections.

The letter from Congress also raised concerns about the political violence that Honduras has witnessed in the run-up to the elections, noting that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “has documented 23 murders of candidates and their family members.” That figure has, tragically, already become outdated in the less than two weeks since the letter was published, as the OHCHR most recently cited 29 political killings. Recent high-profile assassinations include a Liberal Party mayor running for reelection, Francisco Gaitán, and Luis Casaña, a LIBRE Party candidate for municipal councilor who was shot shortly after leaving a campaign event with presidential candidate Xiomara Castro.

Electoral reforms negotiated after the 2017 elections and subsequent protests, but not approved until after party primaries in March of this year, have given rise to hope for a more transparent process. Crucial technical aspects of the electoral process, however — such as the newly implemented fingerprint identification system — are presenting serious challenges with mere hours before voting is set to begin Sunday morning. This includes problems stemming from this year’s electoral census and the administration of new identification cards required for voting. According to reports, more than 350,000 Hondurans were still without these new ID cards as of mid-November, including many in the US.

Also a product of the negotiated reforms is the highly political makeup of the National Electoral Council (CNE), whereby each of the three major parties has one voting member in the CNE. Given that the contenders for the presidency are from LIBRE and the National Party, the Liberal Party CNE councilor could act as a potential key swing vote on Sunday night, and after.

Many are expressing cautious optimism, however — including Gustavo Irías, executive director of Honduras’s Center for Democracy Studies (CESPAD) — that Sunday’s elections could signal a turning point following 12 years of crisis since the coup. In order to monitor conditions on the ground during the elections, CESPAD has partnered with US-based human rights organization Global Exchange to deploy dozens of international, and more than 250 national, observers to polling stations across the country.

Progressives in the US who care about democracy and human rights in Honduras need to pay close attention to these elections, and be prepared to mobilize to ensure that neither the Biden administration nor the OAS secretary general again intervene to recognize a fraudulent process.

CEPR will live-blog the Honduras elections here on Sunday, with updates from people on the ground in Honduras, statements from candidates and other political figures, media reports, and more. CEPR previously live-blogged elections in Honduras in 2013 and closely followed the elections in 2017 and 2009.

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The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) promotes democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives.

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