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Tension grips Honduras in disputed election

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TEGUCIGALPA — Political tension loomed over violence-torn Honduras on Monday as the conservative candidate insisted he won presidential elections while the leftist opposition cried fraud.

The dispute between Juan Orlando Hernández, of the ruling right-wing National Party, and left-wing candidate Xiomara Castro brought new uncertainty to a country reeling from gang violence, poverty and the wounds of a 2009 coup.

With 58 percent of the vote counted, Hernández led a field of eight candidates with 34.19 percent followed by Castro with 28.83 percent, according to the latest tally from the supreme electoral tribunal.

The electoral authorities have yet to announce a winner but Hernández and Castro both declared victory after polls closed late Sunday.

Hernández said the result was “not negotiable with anybody” and he named a transition team to succeed President Porfirio Lobo.

But Castro’s husband, deposed former president Manuel Zelaya, said her camp “does not accept” the result after claiming that the election was stolen.

“We will defend our triumph,” Zelaya told reporters at a hotel in Tegucigalpa while she remained out of sight as supporters chanted “We hear it, we feel it, Xiomara president!”

“We will go to the streets if necessary to defend our rights,” said Zelaya, who was ousted by a right-wing alliance in a military-backed coup in 2009.

International observers, including an 800-strong European Union delegation, did not report any incidents following Sunday’s voting. The U.S. ambassador, Lisa Kubiske, said the election had been transparent.

Political conflict would add to the woes of a Central American nation plagued by the world’s highest murder rate, massive poverty and the divisions created by the coup.

Hernández, the 45-year-old head of Congress, said the people had spoken at the ballot box.

“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he said, while recognizing that the election will bring two new parties to Congress, including Castro’s Libre movement.

Hondurans also voted for 128 congressional seats and 298 mayors.

But Zelaya insisted that his 54-year-old wife had won the election, which would break the right-wing’s century-old grip on power in Honduras.

“The ballot boxes called for deep change in our country,” he said. “We don’t want any negotiations.”

The conservative parties and military dictators have exchanged the presidency in Honduras since 1902.

Zelaya was forced out of power by soldiers at gunpoint after his right-wing administration took a left turn toward the socialist government of Venezuela.

The election’s winner will inherit a country of 8.5 million people with 71 percent of the population living in poverty and a soaring homicide rate of 20 murders per day.

Castro, running to become the first female president of Honduras, wants to create a “community police” force to counter violence.

Hernández favors an “iron fist” approach against the gangs, with 5,000 military police officers in the streets to confront the heavily-armed Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

Gangs run whole neighborhoods, extorting businesses as large as factories and as small as tortilla stands, while drug cartels use Honduras as a transfer point for shipping illegal drugs, especially cocaine, from South America to the United States.

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