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Honduran Elections: No Cause for Celebration

The Nov. 24, 2013, elections in Honduras and their aftermath are a critical moment for the direction of the country. In June 2009 a coup overthrew the elected president, Liberal Party member Manuel Zelaya. In this month's election, Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, ran under the new Libre party banner against the National Party's Juan Orlando Hernandez, the traditional Liberal Party, a new Anti-Corruption Party and several others.

The Supreme Electoral Council declared the National Party's Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, followed by Libre, with the Liberals and the Anti-Corruption Party also receiving a significant share of votes. The newer parties' significant vote count has altered the traditional two-party (National, Liberal) Honduran political scene.

But it is far from time to celebrate a free and fair election.

The International Human Rights Federation electoral observation team, in which Latin America Working Group participated, observing the human rights context as well as electoral mechanics, congratulated the Honduran people for a strong turnout but observed the following serious problems:

Incentives for voting provided by one party. The National Party had booths outside voting places where voters could pick up an envelope with their name on it with a card with discounts for telephone, food, medical care and pharmacy products. This was widespread and open, with the National Party having run ads promoting it.

Live people declared dead. Our small team met at least 20 people who had been declared dead and were unable to vote, as well as others whose voting places had been changed, making it difficult for them to vote. "They have not managed to kill me yet," said one very angry "dead" woman we met at a Libre party booth outside a polling place. Many of these people told us that they had voted at the same voting place in last year's primary.

Oppressive presence of the military. Honduran law unfortunately confers upon the armed forces the role of transporting and guarding electoral material and filled ballots. This law needs to be changed. The presence of the military on this election day was oppressive. Soldiers with automatic weapons had a prominent presence at voting centers, and in one case we observed soldiers frisking voters as they entered the polling place. Soldiers surrounded the transmission towers of progressive radio and television stations on election day.

Among the other problems we observed or which were reported to us were a complete lack of transparency in campaign financing, allegations that smaller parties were selling their poll-watcher credentials, immigration agents harassing some international observers, and the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council was formed by four of the nine parties running rather than being strictly nonpartisan.

However, the allegations of fraudulent acts with the most impact would be in the transmission of votes between the polling places and the Supreme Electoral Council. Our mission noted with concern before the elections that this system appeared vulnerable to fraud. Two parties, Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party, are contesting the results of the elections and demanding to see the results from the individual polling places and a complete recount of ballots.

The Supreme Electoral Council must satisfy the legitimate demands of these parties for complete and transparent scrutiny of contested ballots. International observers should audit the vote transmission system, and the Honduran Attorney General's office for Electoral Crimes should investigate carefully all claims of fraudulent activity.

In the long term, Honduran election law could be improved by removing the military from a role in administering elections, ensuring that the Supreme Electoral Council is nonpartisan, improving the voter rolls and ensuring transparency in campaign financing.

On the day after the elections, a small, peaceful protest by frustrated Libre voters approached the plaza where the Supreme Electoral Council had set up operations in a hotel. Some 150 heavily armed police, including the anti-riot police with their tear gas and shields, and the black-clad military police, blocked their entrance. There was no violence, not with international electoral observers in their jackets and the international press in the nearby hotels. But what will happen now that the observers and the press have packed up and left?

The enormous frustration of voters who feel that once again the faith that they have placed in the electoral system has been violated needs to be heard and needs a solution. It must not meet teargas and batons.

The international community should be concerned about these elections and their aftermath.

We must also be concerned about the overall human rights context in Honduras. Yes, there is an extremely high murder rate due to organized crime and street crime. But there are also targeted killings of and threats against human rights defenders, including those who denounce human rights abuses, protect women's rights and protest environmentally damaging projects such as mining and dams. Journalists and members of the LGBTI community are targeted. Police and other state actors are implicated in many cases, and the vast majority of these crimes remain in total impunity. The human rights unit of the Attorney General's office, which should investigate many of these crimes, has been weakened by the recent transfer of dedicated prosecutors.

Nothing to celebrate yet.