NOT for the first time, the Organization of American States (OAS) is in danger of reinforcing the widely-held view that it ignores its own declared values and principles.
This time, the danger is posed by the way that the Organization is handling developments in Honduras that threaten democracy and fly in the face of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It was in defense of these matters that, throughout 2017, the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, and several states of the Organization berated the elected government of Venezuela, leading to that country’s decision to withdraw as a member in April 2019.
As 2017 was coming to an end, Almagro appeared to demonstrate consistency in his position that he would condemn any member state that flouted the Democratic Charter as he judged it. In this case, it was the November 25 Presidential elections in Honduras. The OAS Electoral Mission, which observed the Honduras election, declared that it had “observed a low-quality election and therefore cannot assert that its doubts about it have been clarified”.
On December 17, Almagro informed the OAS member states and the public that: “The only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras is a new call for general elections, within the framework of the strictest respect for the rule of law”.
Despite the findings of the Electoral Commission and the Secretary-General’s typical and unequivocal pronouncement, a handful of member states of the OAS announced their bilateral acceptance of the Honduran election. Up to then, this did not appear to deter Almagro. On January 5, he wrote to the Permanent Council of the OAS, asking for a meeting at which the Mission’s report would be submitted for “consideration and subsequent adoption, given the importance of the matter”.
Unlike what occurred with Venezuela, bigger and more influential member states of the Organization seemed to want no meeting of the Permanent Council to discuss the elections in Honduras until after the installation of Juan Orlando Hernandez for another term on January 27. So, no meeting was called.
The Secretary-General himself appears to have retracted the strong position that he declared on December 17. On January 22, he issued a new statement, announcing his “firm intention to work in the future with the elected authorities of Honduras”. It seems, therefore, that Almagro has either been encouraged to reverse his position or he has found new evidence that dispels the finding of the OAS mission and his own previous remarks. If it is the former, the Secretary-General has called his own credibility into question. Should it be the latter, he needs to produce the new evidence of a fair election.
It is as well to recap the findings of the OAS Mission which said that the November 26 elections were lacking in transparency, fraught with irregularities and inexplicable delays by a less than impartial Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The 32-page report points to fraud that makes the closeness of the election result too troubling to accept. The ruling National Party’s candidate and incumbent President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is said to have secured 42.95% of the vote, while the Alliance Party’s candidate Salvador Nasralla is reported to have received 41.2%.
A mere 1.75% separated the two candidates amid a host of troubling incidents, including: voter intimidation; witnessed vote buying; ballot boxes arriving open and tally sheets missing; 4.7% of the special voting slips being regarded as valid even though the voting stub had not been removed from the slips. The OAS mission concluded: “The fact that those vote slips were counted is highly relevant given the narrow margin of difference between the two candidates”.
Of special significance to the Mission’s concerns was the unexplained shutdown of the computerized Integrated Electoral Vote Counting and Dissemination System (SIEDE) for several hours. Before the shutdown, the Alliance Party candidate was leading in the count. After the shutdown, there was a curious surge in the average vote across the country from 68% to 73%. This surge coincided with an increase in the average support for Hernandez and the National Party from 44% to 56% and a decline for Nasralla and the Alliance from 32% to 16%. The Mission stated unequivocally: “Such a development is atypical and statistically improbable”.
Three other events raise grave questions about the Honduran election and respect for democracy. First, before the election was held, the Economist magazine published a story in which it said that it had evidence that Hernandez and the National Party were planning to rig the election. It produced recordings of training being given to government employees who were manning voting tables. They were trained, amongst other things, to buy the scrutineering credentials of smaller political parties and “to delay the inclusion of tally sheets favoring the opposition in the preliminary vote count”. Both things eventually occurred.
Second, the OAS mission requested an independent, expert analysis of the dramatic vote swing from a 5% lead by Nasralla, reported by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal after 57% of the votes had been counted in the first two-thirds of the vote count, and a wondrous victory by Hernandez arising after the final third of the votes was counted. The analysis by Dr. Irfan Nooruddin, Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, concluded without equivocation: “I would reject the proposition that the National Party won the election legitimately”.
Third, US Senator Patrick Leahy, the most senior member of the US Senate, on December 5, made a statement for the Congressional Record in which he concluded that: “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”. On December 19, Eliot Engel of the US House Committee on Foreign Relations also called for “a new presidential election in 2018”.
Honduras will be a cauldron of civil unrest and violence if the considerable doubt about the legitimacy of the November 26 elections is not dispelled. Already, twenty-two persons have been killed and the killing of 13 of them has been attributed to the security forces of the country.
By delaying discussion of the elections that its own Mission said it could not confirm, the OAS has delayed confronting a time-bomb that will undoubtedly explode in the weeks to come.
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(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)