Political tension loomed over violence-torn Honduras on Monday as the conservative candidate led the early count in presidential elections while his leftist opponents claimed fraud.
Juan Orlando Hernandez, of the ruling right-wing National Party, declared himself the winner with 34 percent of the vote, after 54 percent of ballots were counted.
Leftist rival Xiomara Castro, the wife of deposed former president Manuel Zelaya, was in second place with almost 29 percent of the votes.
Castro, who also claims victory after Sunday’s election, cried foul and said she plans to hold an “emergency” meeting.
Electoral authorities, which have yet to announce a winner, will release more results Monday, following the election that included six other candidates.
Despite the rival claims, supporters of the two leading candidates did not hold any victory rallies amid a heavy police and military presence throughout Honduras.
International observers, including an 800-strong European Union delegation, did not report any incidents. The US ambassador, Lisa Kubiske, said the election had been transparent.
Political conflict would add to the woes of a Central American nation reeling from the world’s highest murder rate, massive poverty and the wounds of the 2009 coup that ousted Zelaya.
Hernandez, the 45-year-old head of Congress, extended an olive branch to Castro, inviting her to join a “grand national pact” against insecurity and poverty.
“The Honduran people voted to strengthen the democratic system of Honduras, they voted for peace, they voted for reconciliation, they voted to leave behind the 2009 crisis, which has been the worst crisis in our country’s history,” Hernandez said.
But Castro was planning to huddle with leaders of her Libre party on Monday to coordinate their next move to defend what she called her “resounding triumph.”
The left is hoping to break the right-wing’s grip on power. The conservative parties and military dictators have exchanged the presidency in Honduras since 1902.
Zelaya, who was by his 54-year-old wife’s side throughout her campaign, alleged that there were “serious inconsistencies” in one-in-five polling stations.
“They are stealing the election from us,” Zelaya said.
Zelaya was forced out of power by soldiers at gunpoint after he aligned his right-wing administration with the leftist government of Venezuela.
The candidates are vying to succeed President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected after the coup in a controversial election boycotted by Zelaya’s leftist allies.
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, who hopes to become the first female president of Honduras, wants to create a “community police” force to counter violence.
Hernandez 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.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]