TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Both leading presidential candidates in crime-wracked Honduras declared victory late Sunday, setting the stage for a possible round of street protests and violence in one the world’s deadliest countries.
With more than half the votes counted, conservative Juan Orlando Hernández was ahead with 34 percent against 29 percent for leftist Xiomara Castro.
Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, the cattle rancher who was elected president as a conservative and ousted at gunpoint in June 2009 after he aligned with the leftist governments of Cuba and Venezuela.
“I will be the next president of Honduras. And I am going to do everything it takes to bring peace back to the people,” Hernández told a roaring crowd of supporters, citing the early official results.
Castro however had already declared victory.
“Today, we can say that we have won,” a rejoicing Castro told reporters soon after polls closed.
On her Twitter account, Castro said “based on exit polls that I have received from around the country, I can tell you: I am the president of Honduras.”
Hernández and Castro are vying to succeed President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected after the coup in a controversial election boycotted by Zelaya’s leftist allies.
Castro, 54, with the Libre Party, hopes to become the first woman president of Honduras, the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti. An estimated 71 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Hernández, the 45-year-old head of Congress from the ruling National Party, is a law-and-order conservative who has vowed to use soldiers to control crime.
His message has resonance in this country of 8.5 million that records 20 murders a day – the highest rate in the world, according to U.N. figures.
After declaring victory Hernández extended an olive branch to Castro, inviting her and Zelaya to work on a “national pact to improve life.”
Hernández said that he would also reach out to the other six presidential candidates so that “we can all work together” for the benefit of Honduras.
However ex-president Zelaya, who commands a strong following among labor and farmer groups, lashed out at the “theft” at the ballot box.
“Xiomara won the presidency,” he said at a midnight press conference. “They are stealing the election from us.”
Zelaya said that his party would not recognize the official results, claiming that there were “serious inconsistencies” in 20 percent of the polling stations.
The results “are being manipulated” to favor Hernández, Libre vice-presidential candidate Enrique Reina claimed.
Zelaya said that Libre would announce a course of action on Monday.
Mass protests were held in support of Zelaya following the June 2009 coup. The protests, and the selective crackdown that included the murder of several Zelaya supporters, made the country nearly ungovernable for months.
Electoral council chief David Matamoros earlier said he hoped that the election would “heal the wounds” of the 2009 coup.
Government institutions are so weak and the police so corrupt that Honduras is on the brink of becoming a failed state.
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.