Around the globe – from Afghanistan to Senegal – the European Union deploys Election Observation Missions (EU EOM) to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These are independent missions, usually led by a Member of the European Parliament. Their mission contributes to strengthening democratic institutions, building public confidence in electoral processes, helping to deter fraud, as well as intimidation and violence.

A history of violence

Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world (with one of the highest homicide rates). The country has also had a very recent history of political conflict – a coup d’état in 2009 –, thus the government decided to invite the European Union to send a mission to Honduras in order to make sure elections comply with international standards.

These elections were of particular importance, as they were the first ones to end a factual two-party and very polarized system, with eight parties running for the general elections; and candidates other than from the two traditional parties in a position to win. It was also for the first time ever foreseen that neither party would have an absolute majority in the Congress. Expectations and hopes for a change were very high.

On election day

The EU EOM was deployed on 3 October and remained in the country until 15 December 2013. I was nominated by the then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, to lead this mission; altogether our mission included more than 100 long- and short-term observers from EU countries and Norway who were present in all departments of Honduras. The mission’s mandate was to assess the election process as well as the election day with reference to Honduran legislation and international and human rights standards for democratic elections.

The election day was characterised by a peaceful atmosphere and a turn-out higher than ever seen before in the country. Despite serious indications of some trading in accreditations and some minor irregularities, it was clear that there was strong attendance by the four main parties in the party political composition of polling station staff, which was reflected in EOM observers’ very positive evaluations of both the transparency of the voting process and the extent to which voters’ will was respected during counting and also in the transmission of results to the Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE) headquarters in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The TSE also invited everyone interested to come to the headquarters.

Final results showed a difference of around 8% or 250.000 votes between the winning National Party of Juan Orlando Hernandez, and Xiomara Castro, ex-first lady and presidential candidate of Libre (the party of Mel Zelaya, the president ousted in the coup of 2009).

We didn’t witness fraud

Not everyone was happy though. After the elections several voices – some from inside but more from outside the country, including one short-term observer of my own home-country and some media outlets – were attacking the EU EOM in Honduras for allegedly ignoring a massive electoral fraud. But I can say for sure: The final results published by the TSE are consistent with both the quick count from 1006 polling stations carried out (with technical support from the National Democratic Institute NDI) by Hagamos Democracia, an independent consortium formed by several Honduran civil society organizations, and with the results from our EOM.

And in general: EU election observation missions do not certify election results, let alone governments formed as a result of elections. They assess the degree to which elections comply with international and national laws and standards, and issue recommendations in order to improve the system.

Don’t just focus on election day

As we all know, elections are not only won on election day, it is important also to look at what happens during the campaign. The EU EOM was the only mission in Honduras who had a large number of long-term observers deployed all over the country and therefore was able to observe the shortcomings and problems in the run-up to election day.

Among others, the EU EOM observed that on the whole, candidates enjoyed their rights to freedom of expression, association and movement, with no greater limits placed on them than those experienced by all citizens in connection to the country’s precarious security conditions. Nonetheless, our mission recorded instances of violence and intimidation against candidates in 12 departments.

Additionally, we have witnessed thta the voter register is neither accurate nor reliable, constituting a weakness in the electoral framework. No systematic attempt has been made to clean the register for these or previous elections, and it is widely acknowledged that some 30% of entries relate to people who have emigrated or died. For this reason, one of our most important recommendations concerns the modernisation of the voter register and the depoliticisation of identity card distribution.

Morover, election campaigns are excessively long and expensive in Honduras, and their financing is unequal and opaque. This inequality is exacerbated by the use of State resources by parties in power, namely the National and Liberal Parties. Our mission therefore recommended that political parties agree to legislative reforms to ensure greater transparency to campaigns and make them less expensive, by limiting their length and establishing spending limits. And, most of all, ruling parties should be prohibited to use public funds during campaigns, be it at national, departmental or municipal level.

EU EOM monitoring revealed also a clear imbalance in the quantity of the different parties’ electoral propaganda, with the greatest presence noted for the National Party, followed in much smaller scope by Liberal and Libre parties. The National party in particular had access to greater resources to place its election propaganda, and, in addition, as the party in power, it also benefitted from significant institutional advertising. In addition, the creation of a Military Police in August of 2013, without much training for the mostly young men recruited into this new force, was used by Presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez as a demonstration of his willingness to provide security – even tough for many voters of the opposition parties this was considered a threat.

Women and minorities still in a bad position

Although the introduction of a quota for women’s candidacies for Congress and mayors’ offices is positive, it remains necessary to devise further measures to ensure that this quota is more effectively translated into women having real access not only to candidate lists and to the primaries, but also to decision-making positions.

Indigenous and Afro-Honduran people are also still underprivileged members of the Honduran population. During the election process, the TSE neither devised specific voter education programmes for these communities, nor published documentation in their languages. For its part, the LGBT community, one of the worst-affected by violence in Honduras, for the first time entered the political arena by fielding four candidates in the primaries, all of them with the Libre party.

Our added value

The EU EOM was the only observer group not from the American continent and therefore seen as independent. On the basis of our observations, and taking into account the many ideas generated from discussions with Honduran citizens, our EU EOM contributed to the national debate and submitted detailed recommendations for improving future electoral processes in Honduras, for consideration by the government and state authorities, political parties, and civil society.

The objective of EU EOMs in general is not to provide for an ideal election process, that is not in our hands – and there are no ‚ideal elections’ anywhere in the world. Instead we aim to support processes that make elections more transparent, accountable and credible for citizens.

With this election observation mission in Honduras the EU showed that everybody should have the right to make their voice heard through inclusive, transparent and credible elections. The findings and recommendations of our EU EOM are a future guideline for Honduran society and authorities – but implementation lies with them. I am convinced that some of our findings are also valuable sources for the improvement of elections in many other countries all over the world – and to be honest and self-critical: also in some EU-member states.

There is still a lot to be done

Some of our recommendations would require amendments to the law, while others could be implemented through greater adherence to existing rules. In either case, implementation of these recommendations or any other reform towards strengthening Honduran democracy will best translate into rules and procedures that are effective, widely-recognised and sustainable, if this comes about as a result of the widest possible political and institutional consensus. The EU EOM considered that the notable pluralism of the new Congress opened spaces which, alongside political will, would make it possible to adapt electoral legislation to the country’s new realities and to overcome the mistrust with which political parties and citizens alike have traditionally viewed the administration of election processes.

In 2013, for the first time, the National Congress included four parties with negotiating power and, although the National Party still holds the executive power, it cannot anymore govern without reaching agreements with one or more of these political forces. In this context, the EU EOM noted that the legislative term would open up political space enabling the National Congress to debate and approve electoral reform by a wide consensus. Unfortunately, the winning party did not take our recommendations seriously and, for example, nominated new members of the TSE already in January of 2014 before the new Congress was sworn in.

Until the writing of this article there has also not been much agreement on the improvement of electoral reforms. Nevertheless, with the efforts of the EU Delegation on the ground and a European Parliament delegation visiting in February of 2015, we do hope that improvements will go ahead before the next elections.

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