The bid for dialogue following the post-electoral crisis in Honduras

The bid for dialogue following the post-electoral crisis in Honduras

Swearing in of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

(Prensa Casa Presidencial de Honduras)

The Honduras marked by resistance, suffering and poverty has taken to the streets. As of mid-January, the discontent gave rise to 71 mass demonstrations and 31 officially recorded deaths. The other Honduras, the institutionalised ruling elite, took office on 27 January. The differences between the two camps are seemingly irreconcilable. Citizens’ perception of fraud, the re-election and the violence have widened the gulf between the parties to a dialogue sponsored by the United Nations, and supported only by institutional Honduras. Irreconcilable… given that the proposed dialogue is likely to leave unpunished what the Honduras of the resistance refers to as a “prolongation of the 2009 coup d’état,” and what would turn the country’s flailing democracy into an “official dictatorship”.

“On the night of the election, the public was given no official information by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal regarding the count until 1.30am in the morning of Monday 27 November. As a result, the exit polls dominated the media, triggering a battle over the results in which both candidates declared victory. The election observers recommended that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announce the results available at that stage, and its president, David Matamoros, announced the votes obtained by each presidential candidate when 57.18 per cent of the votes had been processed. At that point, the candidate for the Partido Nacional, Juan Orlando Hernández, had 761,872 votes (40.21 per cent) and the candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship had 855,847 (45.17 per cent),” according to the preliminary report of the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS), published on 4 December 2017.

The report highlights, in its conclusions, that: “The narrowness of the difference in election results, as well as the irregularities, mistakes, and systemic problems plaguing this election make it difficult for the Mission to be certain about the outcome.”

Honduras nonetheless witnessed how, amidst total uncertainty, Juan Orlando Hernández was returned to power on 27 January, in defiance of the election results announced in the early hours of 27 November, reopening one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history, with people taking to the streets in defence of their rights, and hoards of police sent in to contain the protests.

“It is important to understand the connection between that current electoral crisis and the coup d’état [of 2009]. What happened in the November elections and what is happening now is the result of not having dealt with the coup d’état,” says Joaquín Mejía, a human rights defender working with ERIC-SJ (Jesuit Centre for Reflection, Research, and Communication) and a member of Radio Progreso – recognised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as one of the most outspoken critics of the electoral process.

According to Mejía, the crisis of 2009 and that of 2017 have four elements in common. “Both elections were preceded by breaks with the constitutional order.” In 2009, there was the coup that overturned the president, Manuel Zelaya. In 2017, the will of the people was overturned. Mejía argues that five judges amended the article prohibiting the re-election of the president and overrode the popular vote, without having the power to do so.

“Both elections were marred by the iron grip over the country’s democratic institutions by illegitimate powers” – the de facto government in 2009, and, in 2017, a concentration of power, and the government’s absolute domination and control over all the democratic institutions. “There is a system of favours and influence connecting all the institutions,” adds Mejía.

Another key element is “the high level of public distrust”, continues the human rights defender. In 2009, that distrust was the result of the coup. In 2018, according to the EIRC-SJ opinion poll of 30 January, 77.1 per cent of the population had no trust in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, 71.2 per cent had no trust in the central government and 72.8 per cent had no trust in the Supreme Court of Justice.

Finally, Mejía points to the decisive role played by the United States and its link with the country’s militarisation.

“It was the only country that did not condemn the coup d’état in 2009, and it supported a dialogue that ended up legitimising the overthrow and allowing the coupsters to go unpunished.” In 2017, the United States did not condemn what could prove to be electoral fraud and the presidential re-election, according to the ERIC-SJ, which argues that the US embassy and armed forces are supporting the military and its grip on power in Honduras, as well as the presence of the president’s friends and relatives in key posts.

Behind the trenches: the victims of the post-electoral crisis

On 15 January 2018, the third report drawn up by the National Human Rights Commission, CONADEH, on the electoral crisis, recorded 31 deaths, 71 demonstrations and 182 complaints regarding rights violations. On 6 February, it denounced, in a press release, the continued use of excessive force, teargas and the “stigmatisation of people” (be they ordinary citizens or activists) by the police.

In its report on the human rights violations monitored in the context of the fraudulent election process, Coalición Contra la Impunidad (the Coalition Against Impunity) which brings together 58 organisations, recorded that 33 people had been killed and that 64 human rights defenders had been the victims of harassment, death threats and intimidation at the hands of the various security forces headed by the National Police and the Criminal Investigations Department.

It should be pointed out that Mejía, one of the interviewees for this report, was granted protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on 28 January, based on the imminent risk faced by himself and his family after they received death threats connected to his work on the electoral process.

Mejía points out that whilst public figures, recognised by the media and international bodies, enjoy a degree of protection, the vast majority of the victims are community leaders and campesinos, whose deaths are silenced by their lack of renown, and who are targeted as a way of stifling protest at grassroots level.

Barriers to dialogue: re-election, fraud and violence

A United Nations exploratory mission was sent to Honduras from 6 to 9 February to assess the situation, with a view to facilitating a dialogue aimed at resolving the post-electoral crisis.

Omar Rivera, advocacy coordinator for the Honduran chapter of Transparency International in Honduras (ASJ/TI), which is a member of the Plataforma Ciudadana por Honduras, a coalition of 200 civil society, church and business groups, explained that the platform is in favour of a dialogue and insisted on the need for United Nations to appoint a credible mediator, trusted by all sectors of society. The platform already has a list of five former Latin American presidents ready to take on this role.

“We are insisting on the absolute need to move forward with dialogue on eight key issues, such as political-electoral reforms, the democratisation of power, human rights, individual freedoms, and an inclusive model of social development and foreign investment. The electoral issue is important, but it is not the only issue, and this outlook is what differentiates us from other sectors,” he explained.

For the platform, the future dialogue process must be based on the formation of working groups that shape the agreements and policies of the state and establish mechanisms that guarantee the continuity of these agreements and policies. The difference with previous dialogue processes, in the platform’s view, is the involvement of major political figures and the backing and credibility provided by international bodies such as the United Nations.

Former president José Manuel Zelaya, coordinator of the Partido Libre (a member of the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, which disputed the elections), who was ousted by the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, set out the reasons for refusing to engage in direct dialogue with the government, and insisted on the need for international mediation.

“We cannot accept any dialogue with the current president, as we consider him to be usurping the presidency, having lost the election. The only thing we are prepared to accept is a mediation process whereby we are able to select mediators, have a right of veto over the mediators, and the results are legally binding,” Zelaya summarised in an interview with Equal Times.

Mejía explains that dialogue has lost legitimacy amongst the opposition and human rights defenders in Honduras not only because the dialogue tabled in 2009 ended up legitimising the overthrow and allowing the coupsters to go unpunished “despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings that crimes against humanity had been committed,” but also due to the total failure to tackle the issues raised by the indignados movement in 2015.

The latest display of the polarisation in this ongoing crisis was seen on 12 February, when the presidency issued a press release accusing the Opposition Alliance of colluding with violent street gangs, organised crime and drug trafficking rings to “steal the election”. The press release also questioned the motives of the opposition leaders Manuel Zelaya and Salvador Nasralla for refusing to meet with the United Nations mission.

It stated that, according to President Juan Orlando Hernández, the opposition leaders refused to meet the mission on realising that, based on international conventions, the organisation was going to examine “what happened in the Honduran election with regard to the gangs and organised crime” and how they played a direct role in favouring the Opposition Alliance through acts of intimidation.

Equal Times contacted the Presidential Palace for official statements and was provided with press releases and photographs but received no response from the president’s press officers to our specific questions regarding his taking office.

Both Zelaya and Mejía underlined the role of the United States in the Honduran crisis (direct interference) and pointed out that its support is designed to legitimise the electoral fraud. Unlike the OAS and other international bodies, which pointed to the irregularities in the electoral process, the United States embassy issued a press release on 4 December in which it emphasised the efforts to ensure the “transparency” of the electoral process and expressed satisfaction with the Honduran authorities’ management of it.

This article has been translated from Spanish.