If knowledge is power, withholding that knowledge is oppression.
It has now been five days since the Honduran general elections, and we still don’t know who won. We don’t know why we don’t know. We don’t know when we will know. Our hearts jump every time our phones buzz, because we’re waiting for news, we’re hungry for news. And every message that lights up our phone is colored by uncertainty—is this true? Did you hear that…? What do you think will happen?
On Sunday, November 26, millions of Hondurans voted in general elections for President, mayors, and municipal leaders. Approximately 500 international observers and thousands of national observers observed the voting process, which seemed initially to be a model of peaceful democratic behavior. Later, we’d wade through the cell phone videos of vote buying, vote forging, voting center doors closed too soon, and try to determine what was true.
The centers closed at 5 p.m., and by 8 p.m. most of the Presidential ballots had been counted across the country. They were copied and scanned, polling station by polling station, but before they had arrived, Juan Orlando Hernández, the incumbent, declared victory based on a strong lead in exit polls (carried out by a former Minister of Security from his own political party). He gave his victory speech.
We waited for official numbers, and waited, and waited, and they weren’t announced and we didn’t know why.
At 8 p.m., the president of the electoral tribunal appeared to say that despite having collected nearly half of the votes, their sample wasn’t “representative,” and that it would be “irresponsible” to announce numbers that could drastically change. In previous years, updates had been early and periodic.
So we waited, not knowing, and Sunday ended with no answer.
Around midnight, under rising pressure, the tribunal gave their first announcement. With 57% of votes counted, challenger Salvador Nasralla had 45.17% of the vote, and Juan Orlando Hernández 40.21%. It was a huge shock, against the polls and predictions that had already been printed everywhere from national newspapers to The Economist. Half the country erupted in celebration. Nasralla gave a victory speech. At work the next day we began to talk about working with President Nasralla.
Then the tallying stopped.
All of us that could were following live updates on the election tribunal’s web portal. A simple pie chart with numbers underneath refreshed every few minutes as more and more votes came in—until they didn’t, and we didn’t know why.
The election tribunal announced that the results would be ready by noon on Thursday. People began to cry foul—there were only 18,000 tally sheets to add up, and it had never taken this long before. Suspicion fell on the members of the tribunal, who had strong political connections with Juan Orlando Hernández.
Thousands of people gathered in front of the tribunal downtown to defend Nasralla’s victory
Hernández remained confident, assuring his followers that the 43% of remaining votes were rural votes, and that they were strong in rural areas. It was “total victory” he told them.
On my way home, I was caught up in the Nationalist’s victory rally. A line of cars stretched down my road and people set off firecrackers, honked horns, and yelled through bullhorns, “Four more years!”
In the morning, still no news. Salvador Nasralla changed his Twitter bio to “president-elect.”
The city was tense, with a tension that had been building up not just for days but for decades. The majority of Hondurans live in poverty, and the country suffers deep inequality. Ever since democratic rule in the country began, power has changed hands between Nationals and Liberals, but the differences between the parties are little more than colors and loyalties.
In 2009, Liberal president Mel Zelaya made gestures towards changing the Constitution to allow for reelection. He was removed in a military coup months before the end of his term.
After a disastrous few months with a de facto president, Nationalist Porfirio Lobo was elected in 2010. Lobo has since been accused of making deals with drug traffickers—his son was extradited to the United States to face trial.
Prosperity and security worsened after the coup, though beforehand they had already been getting worse, a slow steady climb of violence and poverty until Honduras peaked in 2013 as the most violent country in the world.
Ousted President Zelaya, who had since returned to the country, used the moment to create a new leftist “Liberty and Refoundation Party” (LIBRE) whose first political candidate Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, would run against Juan Orlando Hernández in the 2013 elections. Political newcomer Salvador Nasralla also threw his hat into the ring, with his own newly-formed “Anti-Corruption Party.”
Hernández is a lawyer and career politician, a member of the Congress that ousted Zelaya, and the President of Congress under Lobo. After a closely-contested vote, Hernández edged out Xiomara Castro and became president in 2014.
In the years to follow, Hernández ran a tightly-controlled government on a law-and-order platform. He introduced military police officers, which were criticized on an international scale, but popular with the public. The economy improved slightly. Homicides began to go down. He introduced popular social programs, though “the line blurred between benefits offered by government social programs and his National Party,” the NYT notes.
But Hernández accomplished these popular measures through an authoritarian control of the government. While still President of Congress, Hernández led the firing of four Supreme Court Justices from the fifteen-member bench. The official explanation was that these justices were against extraditions; and indeed, the court stacked with his new picks quickly approved an extradition treaty with the United States that has resulted in over a dozen major drug traffickers’ being put on trial in the United States.
But this same court then heard a petition by former Nationalist president Rafael Callejas who appealed Honduras’ constitutional limits on reelection as a violation of his human rights to run for political office. His argument was weak, but the Supreme Court approved the appeal, striking down the Constitutional articles prohibiting reelection. In short order, Callejas was extradited to the United States for involvement in the FIFA corruption scandal, and Juan Orlando Hernández took advantage of the new ruling to announce his second candidacy in time for his party’s primary elections, which he won almost unopposed.
As Hernández was coalescing his party’s support, opposition parties were uniting theirs. LIBRE, led by ousted president Mel Zelaya and his wife Xiomara Castro, joined forces with the tiny, center-left Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) and Salvador Nasralla, who was no longer the leader of his Anti-Corruption Party. Together they formed “Alliance against the Dictatorship,” or Alianza, their goal to beat Hernández.
People fed up with corruption and clientelism and flocked to the Alianza, desperate for change and fearful of Hernández’s centralization of power.
On Tuesday afternoon, the vote tallying began again, and Nasralla’s nearly 5% lead began to drop. On Facebook and in Whatsapp chats, mutterings of fraud intensified, and people shared information about opposition marches.
We heard rumors about backroom deals and changing loyalties, but the television gave no useful information, and social media was worse, true information mixed in with false reports until it was impossible to know what to believe anymore.
The U.S. State Department called for all to be calm and for the tribunal to give fast results.
The European Union called for all to be calm and for the tribunal to give fast results.
The election tribunal called for all to be calm and to wait until their results were ready.
But there were no results. At work, we finished a statement calling for transparency, for a response to accusations of fraud, for a public recount of all the votes, and as soon as a president was named, for fundamental reforms to the election system.
In the afternoon, in a deal carefully brokered by the Organization of American States, both Nasralla and Hernández signed an agreement to respect the results of the election. But Nasralla backed out of the deal two hours later, saying he wouldn’t recognize the results if Hernández won, that the only way he could win would be through fraud.
By the afternoon, none of us were working, we were huddled together refreshing the election tribunal’s page. Hernández inched closer and closer to Nasralla. At 5 p.m, with just forty votes difference, they tied at 42.17%—and then Hernández surged ahead.
Then the tallying stopped.
The server was down, said the election tribunal. “These things happen in every election,” they said, though “usually not during such a critical time.”
Nasralla held a press conference and shouted that the Nationalists wanted to steal their victory. Alianza supporters took to the streets again. Social media exploded with protests, and #ConcluNasralla became a globally trending hashtag.
I watch a friend live stream the protest in front of the tribunal. The blurry video shows people bent over, choking on tear gas that police had thrown. “These men are criminals,” she spits, “Can’t you see they are killing us?”
I barely slept that night. My phone lit up all afternoon and evening with messages. “Have you seen this?” “Did you hear that?” We kept thinking maybe in a minute we’d know more.
But we didn’t know. The tribunal didn’t speak. The news channels were slanted, and the video and audio clips we were all sending each other were unverified.
We didn’t know what was happening.
We didn’t know what would happen.
Not the whole city. I checked the message underneath the terrifying photo. It was just one building, a museum downtown. A circuit breaker. It had nothing to do with the protests, the firefighters said, but I started the day with the flames burning behind my eyelids.
At work, the buzz was that over a thousand tally sheets were marked “monitoring” and hadn’t been entered into the final count. They all appeared to be places where Alianza had won.
Some said the tribunal was going to announce the winner at 3 a.m, then people said 8 a.m., then 12 p.m., then 2 p.m., 6 p.m., but no one heard anything and the deadline the tribunal had given themselves passed.
Finally late in the evening, with just over 1,000 tally sheets still to process, the tribunal said they needed more time—“It could be another day or two,” they said.
Protests turned violent. People threw rocks at police and military officers, who responded with tear gas and batons. We started to hear rumors of people being shot, but we didn’t know what was true. Protesters took over toll stations, breaking the glass windows and setting them on fire. They shattered the windows of restaurants. They threw rocks at cars.
Many Alianza supporters distanced themselves from the acts of violence. “We’ve been infiltrated by criminals,” one protested.
Our entire office was sent home early to avoid protests and road block. On the streets, we passed masked men and drove through the acrid smoke of burning rubber.
Alianza activists spread across Honduras’ major cities, blocking many of the main streets. Everyone who could, stayed home. By 2 p.m. restaurants, stores, malls, and even the airports were closed.
As of 3 p.m., the tribunal’s website shows 94.31% of the ballots tallied, and a 1.5% lead for Hernández. They are asking for patience as they go through the disputed tally sheets. But people’s patience is worn out.
Protests continue across the city—streets taken, windows smashed, tollbooths lit on fire and smashed to rubble. The President has said nothing.
We keep getting messages, some true, some false. It’s too hard to make sense of a moment when you’re in it. We stay glued to our phones, not knowing, not knowing what we don’t know, and not knowing when we’ll know.