Hondurans go to polls, hoping to end crisis

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- Hondurans voted for president on Sunday in a mostly peaceful election that Washington supported but most countries in the hemisphere rejected, saying it could whitewash a coup.

Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, a well-to-do businessman, jumped out to an early lead with 52 to 55 percent of the vote, more than 10 percentage points ahead of another centrist candidate, Elvin Santos, according to exit polls and projections broadcast by Honduran radio and television.

Political, business and religious leaders hope the selection of a new government will help this impoverished country emerge from five months of international isolation. That hope is shared by U.S. diplomats, who have tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an agreement to reverse the June coup.

The Honduran crisis has caused a split between Washington and allies in the hemisphere that say they cannot recognize elections under a coup-installed government that has shut down media, limited demonstrations and committed other abuses.

Adding to doubts about balloting, electoral observation groups from the Organization of American States, the Carter Center and other prominent institutions declined to monitor the vote.

The crisis began on June 28, when President Manuel Zelaya, who had embraced the leftist agenda of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was arrested on charges related to his campaign to rewrite the constitution. Many Hondurans believed Zelaya was trying to extend his rule. Soldiers bundled him onto a plane for Costa Rica, the first time in 18 years that the military had exiled a president in this hemisphere.

Zelaya, who is not allowed to seek reelection under the constitution, called on Hondurans to boycott Sunday's vote.

"The elections will be a failure," Zelaya told Radio Globo on Sunday from the Brazilian Embassy, where he sought sanctuary after sneaking back into the country in September. "The United States will have to rectify its ambiguous position about the coup."

Turnout was 47.6 percent, several points less than the total in the last presidential election in 2005, according to projections released by the country's electoral tribunal. In addition, there appeared to be an unusually high number of null and blank ballots -- about 6 percent, according to projections.

A steady stream of voters in many middle-class and working-class neighborhoods turned out to cast ballots. But Zelaya's appeal seemed to resonate in poor neighborhoods built on Tegucigalpa's hills.

In the San Francisco neighborhood, where skinny dogs and chickens roamed the dirt streets, just a trickle of voters turned up Sunday morning. Naun Argijo, 21, said his family of 10, which shares a two-room shack, would not vote because they were upset over Zelaya's ouster. "He was the only president who looked out for poor people," Argijo said.

Still, the large demonstrations after Zelaya's ouster have dwindled to small protests. Many Hondurans hope the long-scheduled elections will provide relief from a crisis that has crippled the country's important tourist industry and led to a sharp drop in aid from the United States and international lending institutions.

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