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Hondurans go to polls, hoping to end crisis
U.S. backs election Other Latin countries call it illegitimate

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.

"We are so anxious for this all to end," said Rosa Maria Flores, 62, a teacher. She was casting a ballot in the working-class Kennedy neighborhood, which was crowded with voters. Zelaya's agenda and his frequent clashes with the country's institutions terrified Hondurans, she said. "Here, we don't want Hugo Chávez."

Non-governmental groups and the U.S. Embassy have reported a significant deterioration in the human rights situation in Honduras since the coup. International human rights groups have accused Honduran authorities of using excessive force against protesters and harassing human rights defenders. The de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, suspended many civil liberties for three weeks during the campaign and temporarily shut down an opposition radio and TV station.

On Sunday, human rights groups protested after police and military launched tear gas and water cannons at a peaceful pro-Zelaya demonstration of about 500 people in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

Most voting appeared peaceful, however, and fears of attacks by Zelaya supporters were not realized. Honduran authorities dispatched thousands of police and soldiers to guard polling stations.

While the Rio Group of Latin American and Caribbean nations had warned they would not recognize Sunday's vote, some analysts believe that countries will gradually have little choice but to recognize the balloting.

Already, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a highly respected international figure, has said he would recognize the election if it is deemed fair. Other Central American and Caribbean countries are expected to follow.

The U.S. government has indicated it will accept the winner as long as Honduran authorities take further steps toward national reconciliation, including a congressional vote on whether to restore Zelaya for the final two months of his term. That vote is expected Wednesday.

U.S. diplomats say a newly elected president may sway Congress to reinstate Zelaya in the hopes of winning international legitimacy. But many Hondurans expect the lawmakers to vote against Zelaya, and the former president says he has no plans to return to the job.

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