OAS may request new Honduras election to correct 'irregularities'

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Organization of American States (OAS) said on Wednesday it may call for new Honduran elections if any “irregularities” undermine the credibility of results in last month’s disputed vote that has sparked a crisis in the Central American nation.

People hold up a banner at a protest during curfew, while the country is still mired in chaos over a contested presidential election, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras December 5, 2017. The banners reads: " Out JOH", a word referring to National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez. REUTERS/Henry Romero

In a statement, the OAS also called for an immediate return of constitutional rights such as freedom of movement.

The Honduran government imposed a curfew last week when protests erupted over the vote count in the Nov. 26 presidential election, which has been tarnished by allegations of electoral fraud.

The statement, released by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, said the election result was not yet certain, and measures including a partial recount should be undertaken to clarify the outcome and restore credibility.

“It is clear that it is not possible, without an exhaustive and meticulous process of verification that determines the existence or not of an electoral fraud ... to restore the confidence of the population,” the statement said.

Official results showed Honduras’ conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez with a narrow 1.6 percentage point lead over center-left opposition leader Salvador Nasralla. However, no victor has yet been declared by the election tribunal.

Nasralla on Wednesday evening called for an international arbiter to oversee the recount, saying he no longer recognized the Honduran tribunal because of its role in the process.

“If we hadn’t had international participation, we would truly be in the law of the jungle,” he said.

David Matamoros, head of the country’s electoral tribunal, told reporters that the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, which Nasralla fronts, must still deliver its voting tally sheets and documentation so the tribunal can review the election results.

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Then the tribunal will discuss the OAS recommendations and what can be done to implement them, Matamoros added.

When asked about the possibility of a new election, Matamoros said if the complaints about the process are borne out, “the whole issue of the vote will need to be revalidated.”

However, this would only be possible if the tribunal was in a position to review all the tally sheets, he added.

Eight Latin American governments said in a joint statement on Wednesday they supported the tribunal’s decision to hold a total recount of the disputed ballots, and urged Hondurans to remain calm while awaiting final results. Uruguay was added to a list of seven originally issued by Mexico’s foreign ministry.

Nasralla has demanded a recount and encouraged his supporters to protest, triggering demonstrations. At least 14 people - including two police - have died in the protests, according to a human rights group in Honduras known as COFADEH.

Hernandez’s center-right National Party said it would hold a march in Tegucigalpa on Thursday to show solidarity with the president, pledging a turnout in the thousands.

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday advised U.S. citizens to delay or cancel unnecessary travel to mainland Honduras “due to ongoing political protests and the potential for violence.”

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The election results also show Hernandez’s National Party winning the most seats in Congress.

But third-placed presidential candidate Luis Zelaya, of the Liberal Party, said on Wednesday that irregularities in the vote had polluted the results for legislators as well as the presidency, and reiterated that Nasralla had won the top job.

He did not specify what the alleged irregularities were but said his party would share its copies of ballot sheets, including those disputed by the opposition, with the OAS.

On Tuesday, Nasralla said the electoral tribunal should review virtually all the ballots. If the tribunal was unwilling to do that, he proposed a run-off between himself and Hernandez, something not allowed for under Honduran law.

Hernandez, who as president has won praise from the United States for his crackdown on violent street gangs, has not claimed victory in broadcast comments in recent days and indicated on Wednesday that his party would support a recount.

Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Diane Craft and Lisa Shumaker