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Honduras awaits outcome of tight presidential vote

One-time TV personality Salvador Nasralla is — unexpectedly — leading in Honduras’s presidential election, but the outcome is not yet certain © AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov 26 – Hondurans waited Monday to learn who will be their next president after both leftist TV host-turned-politician Salvador Nasralla and the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez claimed victory — and as the ballot count dragged on.

Sunday’s election in a Central American country wracked by gang violence passed off peacefully, but took a turn towards the dramatic when much-delayed initial figures released early Monday showed Nasralla unexpectedly in front.

With 57 percent of the ballots counted Monday, Nasralla had 45.17 percent of votes compared to Hernandez’s 40.21 percent, according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

As evening closed in however, Hondurans still had no idea who their next president would be; the electoral council said final word would come when the last vote was counted, which it said could be as late as Thursday.

Thousands of Nasralla supporters gathered in front of the TSE headquarters in Tegucigalpa to celebrate what they considered to be a victory for their candidate, waving the red flags of his coalition and chanting “JOH out!” using the president’s initials.

Reinaldo Sanchez, president of the ruling National Party, called on his party supporters to turn out to “defend the victory” of Hernandez. They, too, were out in force.

The local Honduran observers’ body criticized the “disturbing delay” in updating the results.

“The absence of official data on presidential results generates unnecessary speculation among the population, which does not help the transparency and legitimacy of the process, expressed by the popular will at the polls,” the coalition said in a statement.

The opposition has denounced the Constitutional Court’s decision to allow Hernandez to run again for president again despite a one-term limit, a move that sparked fears of a crisis in the crime-wracked country.

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“We have never arrived at two in the morning without having results from the count,” said Eugenio Sosa, a sociologist at the National University. He argued that the length of time it took to release the figures had raised suspicions of fraud.

To make matters worse, both candidates had claimed victory in the absence of any announcement of initial results.

Minutes before the initial figures were released, the 49-year-old Hernandez reassured his supporters in Tegucigalpa that he was ahead, after having already declared himself the winner.

Backers of the 64-year-old Nasralla — who represents the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship coalition — meanwhile chanted victory slogans and carried red party flags.

“If the trends do not change, I can tell you that I will be the new president of Honduras,” Nasralla said.

– Vote irregularities? –

Analyst Marvin Barahona said the TSE had left themselves open to allegations of trying to “hide results” when they failed to provide partial results once 40 percent of the vote had been counted on Sunday.

The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa was abuzz with news and talk of the election © AFP / Rodrigo ARANGUA

The streets and cafes of Tegucigalpa were abuzz Monday with news of the election and the possibility of victory for Nasralla, who hosts a popular game show and sports program.

“I am a nationalist (Hernandez supporter) but if Salvador Nasralla wins, then we should welcome him. As long as he behaves well with us as a leader, then we accept him,” said Juan Ramon Lopez, a 65-year-old newspaper distributor.

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– Simmering tensions –

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.

The opposition has denounced his bid, saying the court does not have the power to overrule the 1982 constitution.

Factfile on Honduras © AFP / Nicolas RAMALLO

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 that rate has fallen during Hernandez’s tenure.

What credit he claims from that progress is counterbalanced by tensions over the 2009 coup.

Zelaya — who was deposed by the armed forces with backing from the right and from powerful businessmen, for nudging closer to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — was notably accused of wanting to change the constitution to vie for a second term.

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