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Election Fray in Honduras (cont’d)

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Voter turnout discrepancies

Because Zelaya and the resistance movement were calling on Honduran citizens to abstain from the elections, there was a great deal of speculation, going into the voting, about what percentage of the 4.6 million Hondurans registered to vote would actually do so. During the last presidential vote, which Zelaya won in 2005, only 55 percent of the electorate participated.

According to Felix Molina, a Honduran political journalist who hosts a popular radio talk show on a station called Radio Global, the rate of abstention in Honduran presidential elections has been rising steadily for the last 27 years, ever since the first elections held under the current Constitution, which was authored by a U.S. backed military dictatorship in 1982.

“Abstention has gone up and up,” he said. “So why would they think that this year – just a few months after a very unpopular military coup – there would be a larger turnout than [the last elections]? I just can’t believe that’s possible.”

The Supreme Electoral Tribune of Honduras reported a 61.3 percent turnout figure on Sunday. Consequently, CNN and Fox News both ran with this figure on election night. But critics accused the EST of deliberately fudging their projection data in the hours after the election, by reporting only the results from wealthy areas around the capital, where voter turnout is traditionally much higher. (This Real News Network video argues that the initial high turnout figure was fabricated by coup leaders to legitimize the election in the eyes of international observers.)

A nongovernmental observation group, Hagamaos Democracia, did a random statistical sampling that showed a much lower nationwide figure: 47.6 percent. On December 4, the government revised its official turnout figure down to 49 percent, Agence France Presse reported.

Other irregularities in the way the EST handled the elections have also raised suspicions. The cell phone-based voter corroboration system “malfunctioned,” causing hours-long delays in tallying the votes. “The putschists wish to legitimize the coup, and so they have a real incentive to manipulate the facts,” said Andres Pavon, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), another prominent activist organization. “They have everything to gain if participation tops abstention.”

“It really is a black and white issue,” said Karen Spring, the Rights Action observer. “The real purpose of these elections is to legitimize the coup government.”

Militarized elections

Election day itself was marked by violence against peaceful protesters. Police and soldiers used tear gas and truncheons to break up a peaceful protest march of about 500 people in the country’s largest city, San Pedro Sula, shortly after noon on Sunday.

Witnesses reported that the attack was unprovoked, and that the police suddenly began firing tear gas as the march moved toward the center of town. Nine were detained, and several people had to be hospitalized for their injuries, including a Reuters cameraman.

Police and soldiers were a common sight in the capital on election day.

In the poorer sections of the city, male voters were frisked and in some cases even strip-searched at the entrances. There were no long lines to vote, and most of the journalists and observers reported a decidedly low turnout. By early afternoon the streets of the usually bustling city were deserted.

“It’s not like it should be,” said Karen Andonar, as she was walking to the exit after voting on Sunday. “Usually people are in the streets celebrating on election day. But this year everyone’s afraid.”

But Jerry Weller, a former U.S. Congressman from Illinois who went to Honduras with the Washington Senior Observer Group, said he saw nothing to be worried about in Tegucigalpa.

“I saw free, fair and transparent elections. I saw enthusiasm. People had a very good spirit,” said Weller, who issued a press release endorsing the elections before any preliminary results were in. ” What we witnessed today, at least at the polling stations [was] positive cooperation,” said Weller, who went on to describe the Honduran armed forces as “very professional” during an interview at the election headquarters in the Marriot hotel.

When asked if he could cite any historical examples of “free, fair and transparent” elections taking place under a coup-installed, military dictatorship, former Congressman Weller replied, “This country wants to move forward. The elections are an important part of that process.”

But others remain skeptical of the electoral process under the coup installed government.

“We met with a community group last night, and they’re scared because the police are hanging out at their houses at night, because they’re part of the nonviolent resistance movement,” said Justin Ericson, University of Michigan student who flew to Honduras with the Quixote Center, a Washington D.C.-based NGO. Ericson and the rest of his delegation – about two dozen people from all over the United States–carried signs and marched in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa on Sunday.

According to Karen Spring of Rights Action, that sense of fear extended to the polling places themselves. “How can people vote in peace, when there’s such a huge military presence [at the polling place]? How can you make a good political decision when you know there’s an armed officer watching you?” she said.

Others worry that the election problems run even deeper than intimidation by soldiers.

“This entire electoral process is illegal,” said Nectali Rodesno, a lawyer who was working in an elementary school that had been converted into a polling place for election day.

“The electoral law states that neither police, nor soldiers, can be less than 100 meters distant from the polling places. However, we can see that law is not being obeyed,” Rodesno said, gesturing to a check point just a few meters away where armed troops in camouflage searched voters coming through the gate.

“The putschists know they can break the electoral law, just as they have broken so many others,” the lawyer said, “because the armed forces already govern this country.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published on Thursday, December 3.

Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.

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