Rival presidential candidates claim victory in Honduras vote

Conservative Hernandez vows militarized response to drug violence while leftist Zelaya pushes community empowerment

An election official shows a ballot marked for National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez
Moises Castillo/AP

Honduras’ presidential election looked to be heading towards a tight and potentially contentious conclusion Monday after the conservative ruling party candidate and his leftist rival both claimed victory based on early results.

The electoral authority said partial vote counts gave National Party candidate Juan Hernandez some 34.3 percent support while Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed former leader Manuel Zelaya, had almost 28.7 percent.

The preliminary tally was based on a count from 54.5 percent of polling booths. The electoral authority said it would give its next update after midday (local time) on Monday.

Hernandez, who is the head of Congress, has vowed a tough militarized response to drug gang violence fueling the world's highest murder rate, while Castro is seeking a shift to the left that could also revive her husband's political career.

Hernandez posted a photograph on Twitter of himself and supporters praying on their knees. "Thanks to my God, and thanks to the people of Honduras for this triumph," he wrote.

A Hernandez victory would deal a blow to Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup that plunged Honduras into a political crisis. He had hoped to stage a comeback behind Castro.

Castro, 54, claimed victory early in the evening based on what she said were her campaign's own numbers, then left her election-night party at a hotel and was not heard from the rest of the night. Zelaya urged her supporters to stay at the polls and keep monitoring the count.

"We don't accept the results," Zelaya said early Monday. "There are more than 1 million votes that have yet to be counted."

David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court, said final results were not expected until Monday morning.

"The preliminary results we have given so far do not show any tendency or declare any winner," he said Sunday night.

Both U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske and Ulrike Lunacek, head of the European Union observer mission, said reports from the polls indicated the vote and subsequent count so far were regular.

Distinct visions

Hernandez and Castro offer distinct visions for Honduras, the biggest coffee exporter in Central America.

The economy is struggling in a country already saddled with the world's worst annual murder rate - over 85 per 100,000 people - and how to tame gangs was a key focus of the campaign.

"I don't go out anywhere at night because here they'll kill you for a cellphone," Antonlin Castro, 59, an electrician in Tegucigalpa, said before voting ended. "Corruption here is unbelievable. That's why the country is falling apart."

Five people were killed near a polling station in La Mosquitia, in eastern Honduras, although police said the violence was not related to the election.

Hernandez has a lot of power, and (his) new government will be an extension of what has come before.

Eugenio Sosa

political analyst

Hernandez has pledged to "do whatever it takes to bring peace and tranquility to the country," deploying the army alongside a new military police force to tame drug gangs. That has fanned worries of human rights abuses and corruption.

"I believe whoever gets involved in crime, should be put in their place by the state," Hernandez said this week. "Simple."

In Congress, he oversaw a reform to allow the extradition of Hondurans involved in organized crime to the United States, and rolled out a militarized police force to reclaim control of a nation of 8.5 million people where 20 are killed every day.

"Hernandez has had a lot of power, and (his) new government will be an extension of what has come before," said Eugenio Sosa, a political analyst and sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

Nonetheless, most experts believe there is no quick fix to the violence bred by feuds between rival gangs seeking to move South American cocaine to the United States through Honduras.

The left-leaning Castro of the Liberty and Refoundation Party, or LIBRE - a coalition of leftist politicians, unions and indigenous groups founded by Zelaya - had vowed to create a community police force and scale back the army's involvement.

She also says she would rewrite the constitution, which risks antagonizing the business elite and those behind the ouster of Zelaya in 2009 after he made similar overtures.

Zelaya took office in 2006 as a conservative but moved to the left under the influence of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. When he explored amending the constitution, his opponents interpreted it as a bid to seek a second term.

The Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's ouster and the army forced him out of the country. Honduras' Congress endorsed his removal but U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders denounced it as a coup.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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