Honduras: confusion wins in turnout dispute

On Dec. 4 the French wire service AFP reported that with 57% of the votes from Honduras’ Nov. 29 general elections officially counted, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had revised its earlier turnout estimate down from 61.3% to about 49%. Two days later, on Dec. 6, the CNN cable news network reported that it had gotten figures from TSE spokesperson Roberto Reyes Pineda showing that participation was at 56.6%, with 2,609,754 people voting out of a total of 4,611,000 registered voters. The TSE has to provide the final results within 30 days of the election. (Diario el Tiempo, Venezuela, Dec. 4; AFP, Dec. 4; CNN, Dec. 6)

Turnout was the main issue in the Nov. 29 vote. As expected, the center-right National Party (PN) carried the elections easily: PN candidate Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo won the presidency, and PN candidates took 71 of 128 seats in the National Congress, followed by candidates from the Liberal Party (PL, also center-right) with 44. But the de facto government, in place since June 28, was focused on getting a high turnout to back its insistence that the elections were legitimate. Deposed president Manuel Zelaya and other opponents of the de facto government called for voters to boycott the elections; they estimated that the turnout was just 30-40%. Participation in the 2005 general elections was about 55%. (Reuters, Dec. 5)

The confusion in the official figures started at a press conference held the night of the elections. The TSE gave the media its own turnout projection of 61.3%—and also a figure of 47.6% from the election monitoring nonprofit Fundación Hagamos Democracia (FHD).

According to FHD representative Rolando Bú, the group had observers at 1,173 of the country’s approximately 8,000 polling places and based its projections on the voting at these polling places in previous elections; he put the method’s margin of error at 1%. (Following our sources, we reported incorrectly that the TSE had contracted the FHD to do exit polls.) The FHD says it has monitored electoral processes successfully in 80 countries. It gets funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega have accused the group of having links to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (La Jornada, Mexico, Dec. 1; Rebanadas de Realidad, Argentina, Dec. 1; El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, Dec. 1; Honduras Coup 2009 blog, Dec. 4)

The US government and media have generally ignored the confusion, even with the TSE’s own figures showing three very different turnout rates. “Turnout was 61%—higher than in the previous election, and evidence that Hondurans had rejected Mr. Zelaya’s call for a boycott,” the Wall Street Journal wrote on Dec. 2, without mentioning other estimates. “The biggest loser in the vote may be Mr. Zelaya,” the article added. US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs Arturo Valenzuela called the elections “a significant step in Honduras’ return to the democratic and constitutional order after the 28 June coup.” (WSJ, Dec. 2)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 6

See our last post on Honduras.

  1. More on the Honduras turnout dispute
    For more on this, with an election board employee admitting on camera that the TSE’s own turnout figures were much lower than its original projection, see The Real News Network’s Honduran elections exposed

    By Dec. 9, the New York Times had basically acknowledged that the TSE’s claim of massive turnout was untenable. Now it’s trying to save face by saying a high abstention rate just follows earlier trends: “Mr. Zelaya had called on supporters to boycott the vote to protest his ouster, but estimates of turnout from independent groups suggest that while it was below 50 percent, that was in line with voting patterns in the past.”

    It’s true that voter participation has been falling steadily over the last few elections; the TSE made a point of this in its press conference the evening of Nov. 29. But trends are just trends. A few years ago, the trend in US housing prices was up, up, up–then the bubble burst. Everyone acknowledges that the real issue in the 2009 election was not the assured victory of Pepe Lobo or the equally assured victories of National Party candidates in the legislative and municipal elections. The issue was participation. Zelaya and the resistance called for a boycott; the coup government and the oligarchy demanded that people vote. Under these conditions, could the turnout have simply continued prior trends?

    But of course the important point is that Honduras is already out of the news cycle, and the lasting impression in the US is that the majority of Honduran voters flocked to the polls.