MEXICO CITY -- Honduras, a nation on a years-long quest to overcome political instability, found only new turmoil Sunday when two presidential candidates both declared themselves winners of the day’s election.
With 43 percent of precincts reporting, official results gave Juan Orlando Hernandez of the rightist National Party a six-point lead over left-leaning Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of a former president who was ousted in a 2009 coup.
Hernandez’s followers, convinced of his triumph, poured onto the streets in the major cities of Honduras to celebrate, setting off fireworks. While leading a victory rally, Hernandez repeated a line he'd used often during the campaign to suggest how he'd combat crime: "I will do what has to be done."
But Castro, speaking to a crowd of fervent followers jammed into a banquet hall at a Tegucigalpa hotel, declared that exit polls gave her a “convincing and irreversible” margin of victory.
“Clearly, today I can tell you that I am the president of Honduras,” she said.
The head of the European Union electoral observation team, Ulrike Lunacek, pleaded with Hondurans to wait a few more hours until further votes were tallied.
“Be patient, please!” said Lunacek, who headed a group of more than 100 election observers. “It is important to stay calm and respect the election results.”
At 9:30 p.m. local time, with 43 percent of votes counted, Hernandez held 34.1 percent of the votes, while Castro trailed with 28.4 percent, said Supreme Electoral Tribunal chief David Matamoros. In third place was the candidate from the center-right Liberal Party, Mauricio Villeda, with 21 percent. Five other candidates split the remaining votes.
The Honduran electoral system does not provide for a runoff, so whoever finally wins will have a weak mandate from less than a majority of voters to address runaway drug violence, corruption, and a deepening fiscal crisis.
Honduras still has not fully recovered from the coup that toppled Manuel Zelaya, a Liberal Party member who transformed into a leftist while in office, pulling Honduras into alignment with nations such as Venezuela.
Political chaos following the coup coincided with a sharp uptick in the use of Honduras as a transit zone by global drug traffickers. Violent crime soared. Last year, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, 88.5 per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Nor has the Honduran economy recovered fully from the coup.
A left-leaning think tank in Washington, the Center for Economic Policy Research, said in a report earlier this month that “Honduras now has the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America” as it struggles to regain faster growth.
Honduras has been governed by a member of the National Party or the Liberal Party since 1902, with occasional interruptions for military dictatorship. But the current election cycle featured the rise of two new parties, Castro’s Liberty and Refoundation Party and the Anti-Corruption Party of Salvador Nasralla, a former sportscaster who appeared likely to come in fourth among the eight candidates. With Honduras’ 5.4 million voters also casting ballots for 128 deputies to the unicameral Congress, it seemed likely that if Hernandez maintains his lead, he will face a Congress where his party is in the minority.
The rise of Castro in pre-electoral polls suggested that much of the country was in the mood for change.
Hernandez, a former president of Congress, campaigned on a pledge that he would do “whatever it takes” to battle organized crime and rein in runaway homicides. Civil rights groups worried that an Hernandez victory would usher in an era of extrajudicial police actions that could be aimed at political dissidents.
While a number of irregularities were reported in the voting, only one major incidence of violence occurred. Unidentified gunmen killed five people near a voting station in the remote Gracias a Dios province along the Caribbean. The motive for the killing was not immediately clear.