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 Hernandez was ahead with 34% against 29% for populist 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 governments of Cuba and Venezuela.
The U.S. ambassador to Honduras and the head of a European Union election observer team say the balloting process was conducted without irregularities, and urged the candidates to respect the results.
I will be the next president of Honduras. And I am going to do everything it takes to bring peace back to the people, Hernandez told a roaring crowd of supporters, citing the early official results.
Hernandez extended an olive branch to Castro, inviting her and Zelaya to join a grand national pact against insecurity and poverty. He that he would contact the other six presidential candidates so that we can all work together for the benefit of Honduras.
Castro however had already declared victory, claiming that her Libre Party won a resounding 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.
Hernandez 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, hopes to become the first female president of Honduras, the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti. An estimated 71% of the population lives in poverty.
Hernandez, the 45-year-old head of congress from the ruling National Party, is a law-and-order conservative who wants 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 UN figures.
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.
Mass protests were held in support of Zelaya following the June 2009 coup. The protests, and the following 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 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.
The biggest problem is violence, caused by unemployment, said retired economist Pedro Garay, 72, after he cast his ballot.People have become accustomed to earning money from killing, he said.
During the campaign Hernandez promised to end violence by deploying 5,000 military police officers, while Castro proposed community police to fight local crime, and deploying soldiers to the borders to halt narco-trafficking.
Regardless of the final outcome, the strong turnout for the Libre Party, founded in 2011, has scrambled the national political scene.
Since 1902 the National Party and the Liberal Party, both politically conservative, have traded the presidency with military dictators.On Sunday the Liberal candidate came in a distant third, with 21% support.