Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Observing Election Day

**note, all facts are as I understood them, and may change as more information is released**

On Sunday, November 24th, I watched the Honduran people elect Juan Orlando Hernandez as their next President, with about 34% of the vote. Opposition candidates Mauricio Villeda, Xiomara Castro, and Salvador Nasralla pulled in 28, 21, and 15% of the vote, respectively. After learning about these candidates and following the race for over three months, it was an incredible thing to watch.

My Honduran dad has been running for mayor of our town, so I’ve seen a little bit into the political process. He’s not running as a third-party candidate, but as a sixth- or seventh-party candidate.He doesn’t have any posters up or anything, but he’s definitely informed.

I voted early. Well, not me, personally, but my Honduran brother did take me to watch him vote. (above, walking past the political parties' tents on the way back) We stood in lines outside the grade school, just like the lines in the United States. The streets of Santa Lucia were full of people, but they were quiet. Even the vendors hawking dulce de leche seemed more subdued.

He voted for one President (he wouldn’t tell me who), one Mayor (his dad, he told me), and twenty-three Congressional representatives. The ballets are three separate pieces of paper with the faces of all the candidates on them, so that even those who can’t read can mark the one they want to choose. With over one hundred Congressional candidates, one of the sheets approached table-cloth size.

On the way out, he got his pinky blackened with indelible ink. “That was really calm, right?” he asked with a grin. He wiped his pinky with a cloth to try to rub the ink away, but it only smeared onto more of his finger. “This is going to be here for days.”

Tension has been high over the last few weeks. Two brand-new parties have challenged the traditional two-party system, creating a four-way tie for a while. People feared violence and fraud. Some people stocked up their pantries. My family told me not to go out at night. The new Libre party, whose candidate is the wife of the President ousted in the 2009 coup, attracted the most outspoken following; while the National party controlled more of the government and military police. No one knew exactly what was going to happen on Sunday.

We had an invitation to go and observe the elections, but our professors told we’d wait and see how things turned out. But as I watched the news with my family they turned to each other and admitted – everything was pretty calm. So we went down to the capital city.

It was eerie. Public transportation was suspended for the day. Malls and stores were closed. The streets were empty and quiet, except for the hubbub around voting centers. We drove up to a storefront where in a small office on the second floor, a friend of our group runs a polling center. He managed phone calls from each of the 18 departments of Honduras, compiling the exit polls into an accurate picture of the vote.

After observing the polling process, we went out to the streets, visiting three voting centers before we went back home. Each center we saw was orderly and professional. People were happy to show us the boxes that were filling up with the paper votes – they would later count each by hand. Representatives from each of the eight political parties sat at each table in each room in each building. Most were there from well before the stations opened at 7am until 3 or 4am the next day when all the votes had been tallied. By sheer number of people observing, they hoped to eliminate the possibility of fraud.

And everything went without incident. Maybe the military stationed at every corner with stern faces and bulky guns helped keep any protests down. Or maybe people were just taking their decision seriously – around 65% of Hondurans showed up to vote, the highest in over a decade.

After getting back, I watched the news with my family all night long. Results trickled in from different departments. After a preliminary exit poll showed Xiomara in the lead, she announced her victory on public television even as results showed her losing by several points. Just after, Juan Orlando announced his victory, one that was more supported by evidence.

I've spent a little time on Google, and the headlines I read seem inflammatory. “Tension increases in Honduras, as election sparks competing claims of victory, fraud” or “Honduras Presidential Elections in Dispute as Activists Defy Violence to Back Ousted Leader’s Wife.” It’s true that Xiomara has not backed down her claims to the presidency, however, as contested votes come in, her position is becoming weaker and weaker. All evidence points to her losing by 5-6%.

The winners of Congress have yet to be announced, but it seems clear there will be a house split at least four ways between the different parties. In a system that demands majority vote, that could cause some slow government over the next four years. A lot remains to be seen.

My dad didn’t win mayor. I don’t know if he really thought he would. But one of the people working at the tables yesterday told me something important: It’s important that Hondurans get involved in politics. But if things don’t work out the way they like, it’s important that they don’t give up.

There was a lot to be thankful for yesterday, even if the result wasn’t what 65% of the population wanted. Relative peace. High voter turn-out. Few indications of fraud. If people channel the passion they had for political parties into the issues those parties supposedly stand for – security, education, anti-corruption – then Honduras really will keep moving in a better direction.

Whatever happens, I feel a little bit of responsibility and a little bit of pride. Whatever happens, I got to watch it start.

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