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What I Saw at the Honduran Election

Despite threats of violence, bombs, and  bullying by other countries, as well as being told by their former president that they would be stupid to vote and by world leaders that it would be a waste of time, the valiant Honduran people came through and showed the rest of the world that they value their democracy.

Just as Honduran President Roberto Micheletti had promised hundreds of times since June 28, voters were safe and secure, and the elections were fair and the most transparent in the history of Honduras. Micheletti often said, "No one, absolutely no one, will stop our elections." And no one did, but not for lack of trying.

I went to three polling places on Sunday in La Ceiba (the third largest city) and one in El Porvenir (a smaller town) in the department of Atlantida. The polling places were crowded, and hardly any police or military were in sight. I was surprised at the latter because I was worried they would be needed for security. However, the atmosphere was fiesta-like: happy people, kids playing, mothers carrying babies, many people lingering to talk to their neighbors. I also saw more traffic than usual on a Sunday, with many cars waving the flags of Honduras and/or the political parties. Some polling places had food stands set up outside, adding to the festival atmosphere.

I talked to two soldiers at two different polling places. They were polite and informative and very happy that everything had been calm and orderly. I was taking pictures like crazy -- no one minded, not even the soldiers. I was initially concerned about this as the resistance warned they would be taking photos of voters, implying that there would be retaliation later; I didn't want to worry anyone. The photos can be viewed at my blog, La Gringa's Blogicito. Judge for yourself whether the polls were empty or whether people seem intimidated.

The voter turnout has been estimated at 61%, clearly higher than Zelaya's 2005 election (55%) and almost exactly the rate of the 2008 U.S. presidential election (where voters have no fear of bombs and massacres). The number of null and blank ballots is also estimated at much less (around 5%) than in 2005 (8.6%). It is extremely likely that the total number of eligible voters is grossly overstated, but whether it is more overstated than prior years, I don't know.

The reason is that I don't believe there is any attempt to identify Hondurans who no longer live in the country, unless they officially change their address with the national registry. I really doubt that is done by most Hondurans in other countries, resulting in citizens being unable to vote in the U.S., where more than one million Honduran expatriates are estimated to be located.

While I was waiting for my husband to vote, I saw that six members of his family were on the list for that voting table. Two of them have been in the U.S. for nine and 26 years, respectively. Another one is in Europe and one passed away 11 years ago. So four of the six listed would not be voting, but not because they were protesting the elections. I've rarely met a family in Honduras who does not have at least one relative in the U.S.

Both in-country and international election observers gave outstanding reports and congratulated the Honduran people. Several said that Honduras should be an example for other countries. A Venezuelan observer said, "This demonstrates that the world was wrong. All countries need to rectify their attitude toward Honduras." When asked about the position of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Honduras, one observer said, "The OAS became a white elephant years ago. Now it has become a black elephant." National Review's blog The Corner includes an article by one election observer who wrote that the endless false reports of repression of Radio Globo "had nothing to do with the reality around me."

Some detractors, notably Zelaya and Patricia Rodas, former foreign relations minister, are trying to make much of the fact that OAS observers were not present. However, there were some 600 trained international observers, thousands of national observers, and approximately 400 members of the international press. Additionally, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), the Honduran electoral authority, invited every voter to linger at the polls to observe the voting and the counting of ballots. By comparison, the OAS sent 70 observers to the primary elections in November 2008 to cover 5,306 voting locations.

Late in the evening during the first televised announcements by the TSE magistrates (some quite emotional), there was applause and even standing ovations from observers in the audience for the authorities. My Honduran husband and I were emotional as well. It was a proud moment for Honduras.

I read about a couple of incidents. In one case, resistance members were illegally preventing voters from entering a polling place in San Pedro Sula. In another, also in San Pedro Sula, resistance protesters were breaking windows. Protesters were quickly dispersed by the police.

The polling hours were extended an extra hour because of delays in opening the polls by the five political party members who man each voting table. There was also a shortage of ink which had to be rectified, and -- I'm willing to bet -- the Honduran propensity to wait until the last minute.

Nacionalista Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo was the clear winner with updated preliminary reports showing he has approximately 54% of the vote, compared to 38% from the Liberal Party's Elvin Santos. The candidates from the other three political parties received approximately 2% each. César Ham, UD candidate, a Zelaya supporter, member of the resistance, and proponent of a constitution assembly, received the fewest number of votes.

Unlike the 2005 election, which was disputed, prompt and gracious comments were made by the four losing presidential candidates.

Felícito Avila: "Honduras has won, Honduras has been strengthened and democracy is what has given us the opportunity to participate."

Elvin Santos: "Hondurans have given an lesson to the world of democracy in a journey where peace and tranquility prevail."

Bernard Martínez: "Honduras won, peace won, tranquility won. We have given a 'yes' to democracy."

César Ham: "The elections are a civic fiesta. The crisis will be resolved through a grand national dialogue."

While some Hondurans believe that this marks the end of the crisis, others are more realistic. They know that the protests and the violence are not going to end. In fact, the resistance has already announced that it will not "dialogue" with Lobo; they are still holding out for the constitutional assembly. Some of these resistance leaders have been protesting and striking for 20-35 years. They protested against Zelaya and against Micheletti; they will protest whether or not Zelaya is reinstated; and they will protest against Lobo. That is just a fact of life in Honduras.

If I could give one message to Manuel Zelaya, it would be the same question that CNN (Español) reporter Patricia Janoit asked: "Why not take this opportunity to show to the world your love for your country?" (Video in Spanish here. By the way, Zelaya responded by accusing her of being associated with the "dictator" and CNN of being the only channel in the world not reporting the "repression.")

Hondurans are rightfully proud of themselves and their government for standing up to the world. They are overwhelmingly tired of the arrogant, disrespectful, and decidedly undiplomatic statements about what they "need" to do. Sure, other countries can do a lot of harm to Honduras. It is one of the poorest in the hemisphere and has one of the most fragile economies. But those countries need to quit wringing their hands over Mel Zelaya and respect that Honduras is a sovereign country.

Tomorrow is another big milestone: Congress will vote on whether or not to reinstate Zelaya to the presidency. I do not believe that he will be restored to power and hopefully this Honduran decision will be respected, as was promised.

The people of Honduras have spoken and the rest the world, including the U.S., needs to quit interfering with the democratic process in Honduras.