Initial results of the Honduran presidential vote released early Monday showed opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla leading current President Juan Orlando Hernandez, after an evening that saw both men declare themselves victorious.
With 57 percent of the ballots counted, the leftist Nasralla had claimed 45.17 percent of votes compared to Hernandez’s 40.21 percent, according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).
The opposition has denounced the Constitutional Court’s decision to allow Hernandez to run for re-election despite a one-term limit, a move that has sparked fears of a crisis in the crime-racked country.
Hernandez, 49, declared himself the winner before official results were announced — and his top rival did the same.
“The result is more than clear: we won this election,” he told supporters who cheered him in the capital Tegucigalpa.
Following that announcement, 64-year-old Nasralla, representing the Alliance Against the Dictatorship coalition, told supporters he was in the lead and could not be caught.
“I am the new president of Honduras,” he said.
An estimated six million people were eligible to cast ballots, electing not just a president but also members of Congress, mayors and members of the Central American Parliament.
Though both candidates proclaiming themselves president had stoked fears of unrest, election observers said the vote was smooth.
“What we have seen so far has been positive,” said Marisa Matias, a European parliament observer from Portugal, one of 16,000 monitors.
– ‘Between dictatorship and democracy’ –
Hernandez’s conservative National Party — which controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government — contends that a 2015 Supreme Court ruling allows his re-election.
“Thanks to everyone for strengthening democracy,” Hernandez said on Twitter. “We are leading and we are going to win decisively.”
The opposition has denounced his bid, saying the court does not have the power to overrule the 1982 constitution.
Hernandez’s main rivals — former TV anchor Nasralla and Luis Zelaya, 50, of the right-leaning Liberal Party — had both said before the vote that they would not recognize a Hernandez victory.
“It’s an atypical electoral process with an illegal re-election,” said Zelaya after voting.
Nasralla, while visiting voting stations around the capital to rally his supporters, urged them to be vigilant for signs of fraud.
“They are out here offering poor people food, roof tiles or cement in exchange for their vote,” he complained.
“I tell them that that’s how they are going to stay poor. I am going to create jobs for them.”
Hernandez cast his vote early in his home town of Gracias, in the country’s mountainous west, accompanied by his daughter and several National Party deputies.
“Four more years!” supporters chanted as he arrived. Hernandez told reporters he had been up early, messaging with organizers to be sure the elections would take place smoothly.
Honduras, in the heart of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America where gangs and poverty are rife, has one of the highest murder rates in the world, though it has fallen during Hernandez’s tenure.
What credit he claims from that progress is counterbalanced by tensions from a 2009 coup.
That year, then-president Manuel Zelaya was deposed by the armed forces, with backing from the right and from powerful businessmen, for nudging closer to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya — no relation to the Liberal Party candidate — was accused of allegedly wanting to change the constitution to seek a second term.
The streets of Tegucigalpa were festooned with the main parties’ colors over the weekend.
– Tensions could boil over –
But some analysts warned the calm was deceptive and tensions could boil over because of the president’s desire to hold on to power.
“For the first time, it’s not a race between conservatives and liberals, but between a dictatorship and democracy,” said Victor Meza, a political analyst at the Honduras Documentation Center.
Hernandez’s top rivals accuse the electoral board of preparing poll fraud to declare the incumbent president the victor. The TSE denies that.
“I hope you won’t get discouraged when false information starts going around. We need to stay vigilant,” Nasralla told his supporters on Friday.
Apart from the presidential election, Sunday’s balloting will also decide the country’s three vice presidential posts, the 128-seat congress, 20 representatives in the Central American Parliament and the mayors of 298 municipalities.