Leahy Statement On The Election In Honduras

Congressional Record

Mr. President, I want to alert all Senators to the situation in Honduras.  Those of us who care about Central America have watched the election for Honduras’ next president with increasing alarm.  It has been more than a week since November 26, when the people of Honduras cast their votes.  Since then, repeated delays and suspicious behavior – which suggests either incompetence or fraud – by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) that has been tallying the ballots, have incited large public demonstrations. 

Late last week, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez suspended constitutional rights and imposed a ten-day, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.  Several protesters, including a 19-year-old girl, have reportedly been shot and killed by Honduran troops, and hundreds more have been arrested.  Salvador Nasralla, the main opposition candidate, called for a new election and reportedly urged the Honduran police and military to disobey orders of their commanders to fire on demonstrators.

Even before the Honduran people went to the polls the prospects for a free, fair and peaceful election faced many challenges.  The most obvious point of contention is that President Hernandez is seeking a second term, since until recently the Honduran Constitution had been interpreted to strictly limit presidents to a single four-year term. 

Ironically, in 2009 former President Manuel Zelaya was forced from power by a coalition of military officers, business owners, and conservative politicians including Hernandez, after they accused Zelaya of using a popular referendum on a proposed constitutional convention to extend his own rule.     

Zelaya’s ouster was initially labeled a coup by the U.S. State Department, but it was not long before the United States accepted the result and resumed sending economic and military aid to the government of President Porfirio Lobo.  During the next three years the influx of illicit drugs and the incidence of violence, including assassinations of journalists and other civil society leaders, increased dramatically, and Honduras became among the most violent countries in the world.

After Hernandez became president of the National Congress, he and his National Party replaced the Supreme Court with justices intended to support their political agenda.  And in 2013, Hernandez was declared President of Honduras after an election fraught with reports of vote buying and threats and assassinations of political opponents. 

Two years later, the same Supreme Court ruled that he could run for a second term – paving the way for last week’s election.  Just eight years after former President Zelaya was pushed out for allegedly proposing that the Honduran people vote on the question of a second term, President Hernandez had consolidated his control by replacing the justices of the Supreme Court, appointing the TSE, maintaining a majority in the Congress, and using the State media to drown out his critics.  It was widely predicted that he would coast to victory. 

But President Hernandez’ government, in addition to becoming increasingly autocratic, has been dogged by accusations of pervasive corruption. 

For these reasons, and because of the opaque and bizarre conduct of the TSE during the vote tallying process, it is perhaps not surprising that the situation has deteriorated to the point of becoming a national crisis of confidence in the integrity of Honduras’ democracy. 

Contrary to past practice, the TSE did not issue early results until the day after the polls closed.  At that time it announced that with 57 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Nasralla, a former TV sports journalist, was leading by 5 percentage points.  This indicated the possibility of an historic upset, and while based on past practice the final count was expected the next day, the process of tallying the votes dragged on behind closed doors with no further announcements.

While Nasralla and his supporters celebrated and the third-placed candidate, Luis Zelaya of the Liberal party, conceded, President Hernandez and his allies in the press insisted that he would come out on top once the rural votes were counted.

The TSE also said the rural vote count was delayed, and on Wednesday, after a long silence, the TSE indicated that Nasralla’s lead had started to shrink.  But the press reported that no technical reason was apparent to explain the delay as the results from all polling stations were reportedly transmitted electronically as soon as the polls closed. 

As time dragged on, suspicions of fraud escalated among Nasralla’s supporters, and last Wednesday afternoon the TSE said its computer system had inexplicably ceased functioning for five hours.  Then on Wednesday night the TSE reported that President Hernandez was ahead by several thousand votes, which triggered protests by Nasralla’s supporters, some of them reportedly throwing rocks and lighting fires in the streets, who were met by troops firing tear gas and live bullets. 

According to press reports, the opposition is questioning ballots from 5,300 polling places and has called for a recount of ballots from three rural departments.  But yesterday morning, after only a partial recount, the TSE announced its final tally in favor of President Hernandez by just 1.49 percent, a gap of 52,333 votes.    

The process has been so lacking in transparency, so fraught with irregularities and inexplicable delays, and coupled with reports of excessive force by the Honduran police and military against peaceful protesters, it is increasingly obvious that the TSE’s announcement made a bad situation worse.  There is too much suspicion of fraud, and too much distrust. 

On Saturday, I asked the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa three simple but important questions about the delays, the TSE’s tally of the votes, and the reports of shootings of protesters.  It is late Tuesday afternoon and I have yet to receive answers.  This lack of responsiveness in such a time of crisis is troubling, and I hope it is not a new standard.

Yesterday evening, the OAS issued a statement that “the tight margin of the results, and the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results.”  There were also reports that large numbers of Honduran police officers, many of whom have longstanding grievances, are refusing orders to use force against the protesters.  Earlier today I was informed that there may be at least 15 fatalities, and many people injured, from gunshot wounds.  There are reports that the police and military fired many shots, sometimes in the air, and other times at the crowds.    

The importance of this election, which will determine who leads Honduras for the next four years, cannot be overstated.  This is especially so because of the way it came about in the first place.  There was already resentment toward President Hernandez for the double standard of participating in the coup against Zelaya, and then orchestrating his own path to re-election.  As one Honduran was quoted saying, they “are reliving the entire crisis from the coup of 2009, and the majority of people don’t really like that because it brings back some ugly memories.”

President Hernandez and Mr. Nasralla offer significantly different approaches to tackling the country’s problems.  Given the debacle of the past week and the growing popular outcry, it is apparent that establishing the credibility of the electoral process and the integrity of Honduras’ democracy requires either recounting the contested ballots from each of the 5,300 polling places in the presence of representatives of the political parties, representatives of civil society, and international observers; or holding a new election. 

In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the Honduran government – particularly the police and the military – to respect and defend the right of the Honduran people to freely and peacefully express their opinions.

Honduras faces a defining moment in its modern history.  How the government resolves this crisis will determine the path of the country for the foreseeable future.  It will also determine the extent of validity and support the next government receives from the United States, because only a credible election, accepted widely by the Honduran people as free and fair, coupled with a demonstrable commitment to transparency, to freedom of expression and association, and to the rule of law, will justify that validity and support.

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