The country’s electoral authority reversed the initial presidential election results, now giving the conservative incumbent a lead in the vote count. Tensions are mounting as protesters clash with the police. Heather Gies reports from Tegucigalpa, Honduras
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GREGORY WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Police and protesters clashed in Honduras on Thursday. The protests are directed against the vote count for Honduras’ presidential election which took place last Sunday. Opposition leaders are saying that the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernandez is committing fraud. When the first results were announced last Monday, the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, who is supported by a left-of-center coalition led the count by five percentage points. Since then, though, the Electoral Council suspiciously interrupted the vote count twice and when it restarted, President Hernandez had caught up with Nasralla and is now leading with just under 1% of the vote. Joining me from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to analyze the situation there is Heather Gies. Heather is an editor with the website Upside Down World and a freelance journalist. Thanks for being here today, Heather. HEATHER GIES: Thanks for having me. GREGORY WILPERT: First, tell us about the protests and what is happening on the ground at the moment. Are there any casualties? What’s going on in these protests? HEATHER GIES: The situation is very tense. As you mentioned in your introduction, there were elections here on Sunday and this is now the fourth day without final results. So, tensions have just been rising throughout the week. And these prolonged silences from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and a sudden change in a trend of results, that we had heard from one Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrate was irreversible has really generated a lot of uncertainty and people are looking for answers. Earlier this week, there were some demonstrations, both by the National Party and by the Opposition Alliance celebrating their claims of a victory. The Opposition Alliance celebrations were very joyous, very colorful, very upbeat environments and the environment we’re seeing today, this morning and this afternoon on the ground is quite different. Protesters have gathered near where the votes are being processed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal here in the capital city Tegucigalpa and the police are being quite aggressive. They’ve fired tear gas repeatedly to disperse the protesters. At times, especially student demonstrators have thrown rocks at the police. The situation is just kind of escalating because Juan Orlando is still ahead and that goes against what was supposedly the irreversible trend of the results for the victory for Salvador Nasralla. So, it’s a very tense environment right now. GREGORY WILPERT: Nasralla, the opposition candidate is saying that fraud is being committed. What kinds of evidence or what kinds of things is he basing his allegation on? HEATHER GIES: Yes. Yesterday, Salvador Nasralla had a press conference in which he presented his tally of results based on scanned copies of the tally sheets which all political parties have in their position. At each of the polling stations, those tally sheets where the ballots are counted are signed and scanned and each of the political parties has a copy of those tally sheets for the purpose of transparency. The Opposition Alliance is saying that it has completed its vote count based on those tally sheets, and it’s not lining up with the results coming out of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The National Party is also presenting its own reports of its results based on its tally sheets and those are coming up with also different results that throughout the week have shown a victory for the incumbent president. Over these last days, initially as you mentioned, Salvador Nasralla emerged in the initial report of preliminary results with about a 5% lead over Hernandez. And then after a fairly lengthy silence from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which generated a lot of suspicion about what was going on and why it was taking so long for results to come in, results on Tuesday started to show that margin of victory diminishing and eventually Juan Orlando Hernandez surpassing in front of Nasralla. What was happening during that time was that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was only entering results from areas of the country where Juan Orlando Hernandez was strong and was discarding results or not entering results from area of the countries where the Opposition Alliance has strong support, mostly in the northern part of the country. So, what we had heard was that as those areas of the country started to be accounted for, that we would see the trend toward Nasralla’s victory return. However, we haven’t seen that trend return. Now, the vote count is sitting around 92% and we’re still seeing that Juan Orlando Hernandez is ahead. Other irregularities that the Opposition Alliance has denounced include the inclusion of tally sheets without signatures. In order for the tally sheets to be formalized, those working at the polling stations would sign them before they are scanned and the Opposition Alliance is say that as it goes through the tally sheets, which are uploaded to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal website with the results, it’s going through and finding cases of tally sheets that have not been signed. Nasralla also pointed to the fact that more than 5,000 tally sheets were scanned here in Tegucigalpa, where they’re arriving to be counted and not at the polling stations. And those more than 5,000 tally sheets represented more than a million and a half votes, and a chunk of those were from areas of the country where he was strong, so he was saying that that was another kind of irregularity. In addition, while the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has been carrying out this kind of discriminatory processing of votes favoring areas of the country where the National Party is strong, as they come across polling stations in those areas that voted for the Opposition Alliance, those tally sheets have been sent to special monitoring, so to go through additional scrutineering in this vote counting process. Nasralla said yesterday that in light of all these irregularities, in addition to the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s system and servers went down for a few hours yesterday, again suspending the results, he said with all of these irregularities he does not trust the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which I should mention is headed by an active member of the National Party who formerly served as a member of Congress for the National Party and also was formerly general-secretary for the National Party. He said that this body cannot be trusted and that he will not recognize the official results coming out of that body. He will only recognize the physical tally sheets, which the Opposition Alliance has in its position. And the Opposition Alliance has said that it’s compared its tally sheets with those of the Liberal Party, and those coincide. GREGORY WILPERT: Another thing that I noticed today is that, surprisingly, the conservative magazine The Economist had an article in which they claim to give, or, no sorry, in which they give credence to the fraud claim saying that they have a tape recording in which voting center workers were being coached on how to commit fraud during the vote counting process. Has this recording made any rounds in Honduras? Has this been mentioned at all? HEATHER GIES: That article was very interesting, very damning. I haven’t seen it making the rounds in Honduras but some of the things that that article talked about are things that Hondurans are speaking about. For example, it mentions the use of the small suitcase parties, which are involved in what they call a trafficking of credentials. Each party gets to send representatives to each polling station and the smaller parties that don’t really have a grassroots voter base will sell their credentials, allegedly, to other parties, such as the governing National Party, in order to have more of their representatives at each polling station. And that would make it easier to carry out some kind of fraudulent behavior with the votes. Some of the things mentioned in that article are things that Hondurans have also talked about, and I think the fact that that was published ahead of the elections is quite damning. And it also mentions things like if the votes are not going in your favor, then why do you care that that tally sheet would arrive for processing? So some of those questions are certainly being raised as we’ve seen this kind of preferential processing of the votes excluding areas of the country in the north, where the Opposition Alliance is strong, and instead processing votes from National Party strongholds. GREGORY WILPERT: What are international observers saying about the vote count and the election? HEATHER GIES: Excuse me. Most international observers have lamented the fact that the process is going so slowly, and this is a very low process. Hondurans are saying, “We’ve never seen such a long process to get results.” Four days after the election is too much, so international observers are lamenting that fact. But overall, there’s a sense from people who are really worried about fraud being carried out, that the international observers aren’t saying enough. The European Union Observation Mission did make some interesting observations pointing to the fact that there are pretty considerable irregularities in this process compared to the 2013 election, when the results of the election were declared much more quickly. In that case, the European Union mission pointed out that in the time that in this election one official recorded results have been results had been given, there had been five reports of results in the 2013 race. And that mission also made another interesting point about the fact that Honduran media have not given balanced coverage and that the media coverage in mainstream media has disproportionately favored and given more coverage to the National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez. GREGORY WILPERT: Finally, what is the institutional situation like in Honduras? What I mean is, does the opposition stand a chance in challenging any fraud in the courts? HEATHER GIES: That’s a good question. In the last election in 2013, there were also allegations of fraud, some of the same kinds of fraud that are being alleged right now. Ultimately, they were not able to prove that fraud had been carried out. That’s part of the reason that Hondurans who are taking to the streets in support of the Opposition Alliance right now are so fed up. Because they’re saying, “They have already robbed us of the election once in 2013, when Xiomara Castro was the candidate for the left-wing LIBRE party. We’re not going to allow them to do that again.” But it’s certainly going to be an uphill battle because we know that impunity is widespread. The National Party has been involved in multiple scandals including corruption, alleged links to drug trafficking, and there’s been complete impunity, and some of the allegations are quite serious. The courts are not really in the favor of the opposition, so it will be extremely challenging for that fact. Something that Nasralla pointed out yesterday is that this vote count that he’s referring to with the Opposition Alliance tally sheets is already including some alleged fraudulent behaviors that had been carried out, such as at the polling stations with these small suitcase parties and other irregularities in the process, vote buying, et cetera. Even with those kinds of fraud included, the voters have turned out so overwhelmingly to vote for the Opposition Alliance that he’s still coming out victorious according to, not the official results as we’re seeing them right now, but according to the Opposition Alliance’s count of the votes. That is different from the case in 2013 when a victory for the National Party was declared early on. In this case, we did have a Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrate saying earlier in the week that the trend towards victory for Nasralla was irreversible. So certainly, I don’t doubt that the Opposition Alliance is putting together its case, but as you mentioned, given the weak institutionality in Honduras, that will certainly be an uphill battle. GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to keep an eye on what’s going on. I was speaking to Heather Gies directly from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Thanks so much, Heather, for joining us today. HEATHER GIES: Thank you, Greg. GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for supporting The Real News Network. If you like our news and analysis, please don’t forget to donate to us and to The Real News for this holiday season.