With clouds of tear gas hanging in the air, hundreds of students sheltered themselves behind the National University’s gates two days after the hotly contested presidential election here. The student groups didn’t come out looking for trouble, they say, but to register their disgust with the country’s election system – which had just proclaimed ruling party Congressman Juan Orlando Hernández Honduras’ next president. Many of these youth were among thousands of university students who sacrificed their chance to vote in order to serve as election custodians, running polling centers in far-flung parts of the country. Though none would give his or her full name, citing fears of reprisal, several recalled witnessing signs of fraud, like the buying of votes and polling credentials; voters presenting false IDs; and people handing out gifts on the eve of the Nov. 24 election. “We thought [this election] was going to be different, and it was the same as always,” says a 23-year-old IT student who served as an election volunteer. “What happened is a mockery for us.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the losing presidential candidates say the same. Two are demanding recounts, alleging fraud, and, in the case of left-wing hopeful Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, calling supporters into the streets for rowdy, defiant marches.
These allegations run contrary to the findings of some 700 international observers who served in Honduras last month. In their official reports, the missions described the elections as largely trouble-free. Experts say such disagreement is typical, as monitoring missions – which are often composed of professors, lawyers, human rights activists, and college students – are inclined to look more at the general quality of the election process than ferret out every tiny irregularity.
“Almost all elections have some problems,” says Susan Hyde, an expert on international election observation missions at Yale University. “It’s a difficult judgment to make.”