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Democratic socialist claims victory in Honduras as votes are tallied

Xiomara Castro looks to become the country’s first female president, in a referendum on a ruling party accused of corruption and drug trafficking

Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro acknowledges her supporters after the election Sunday in Tegucigalpa. (Moises Castillo/AP)

Leftist candidate Xiomara Castro claimed victory in the Honduran presidential election as votes continued to be counted Monday.

With just over half of the ballots in the Sunday election tallied, the Free Party candidate, who identifies as a democratic socialist, held a 20-point lead over Nasry Asfura, her main rival. The National Electoral Council had not yet declared a winner.

Castro, 62 — the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by the Honduran military in 2009 — would be the first female president in the Central American country. Her election would be a major shift away from the conservative National Party, whose leaders, including President Juan Orlando Hernández, have been linked to drug trafficking in U.S. court cases.

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“Out with war. Out with hate. Out with drug trafficking and organized crime. Out with corruption,” Castro told supporters late Sunday.

Hernández’s brother, Tony Hernández, was sentenced in U.S. federal court this year to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking. U.S. prosecutors have accused Juan Orlando Hernández of drug trafficking in filings in that case and others. He has denied wrongdoing.

The endemic corruption and weak institutions in Honduras are considered partial explanations for significant migration to the United States. More migrants have arrived at the U.S. border this year from Honduras than from any other country.

A Castro victory would bring the Honduran left back to power a dozen years after Zelaya was ousted. During the bitterly fought campaign, Castro’s opponents emphasized her husband’s support for Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s troubled socialist state, and warned of dangers posed by her platform. But the election results appeared to reflect a deep dissatisfaction with the National Party more than ideological support for Castro.

On Sunday night, the country’s chamber of commerce congratulated Castro in a tweet. The chamber said it was “ready to work hand in hand for free enterprise and the Honduran people.”

By Monday morning, shopkeepers had begun dismantling the boarding from windows and doors that they had hammered in place days earlier in anticipation of rioting and looting like what followed the 2017 election.

A former National Party voter who defected to Castro howled his joy from a sixth-floor balcony. “Yes, it was a punishment vote,” said Jose Mejia, 35, when he clambered down to speak to a reporter. “I’m sick of those picaros,” or rascals. “I’ve worked for them from the inside. So I know.”

A group of five Castro voters nearby was celebrating.

“Come dance!” Kenia Ayala, 42, said to the other four as she shimmied to the punta beat blasting from her phone.

Castro’s main opponent, the National Party’s Asfura, the mayor of Tegucigalpa, refers to himself as “Papi a la Orden” — “Daddy at Your Service.” Many Hondurans refused to vote for him, because of his links to Hernández’s team.

Asfura and his party did not concede, contending that they will win.

Castro campaigned on promises to rid the country of corruption. She has proposed a U.N.-backed anticorruption commission similar to one that was shut down under Hernández’s government.

She also proposed a universal basic income for the country’s poorest families. On her website, she pledged to provide jobs for those most likely to migrate, though she has offered few details.

The Biden administration has struggled to find reliable partners in Central America as it seeks to deter migration through development assistance, complicating one of the top U.S. priorities in the region.

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Castro’s candidacy received a boost when she won the backing of Salvador Nasralla, a former television host and onetime presidential candidate. In the 2017 election, when Hernández ran for a second term, Nasralla appeared to hold a lead after half the votes had been counted. Then there was an unexplained 24-hour delay in results. When reporting resumed, Hernández surged ahead and was declared the winner.

That result raised concerns about the prospects of a fair election this year. The country’s recent political history has been pockmarked by scandal.

On June 28, 2009, three years and five months into Zelaya’s presidency, hundreds of soldiers entered the presidential palace before dawn, handcuffed the president and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. Zelaya had lost significant support among the country’s elite as he shifted to the left, becoming closer to Chávez. He and his supporters called it a coup.

In recent months, Zelaya reemerged as his wife’s campaign manager, raising questions about what his role would be in a Castro administration.

Hernández is expected to become more vulnerable to extradition to the United States when his presidency ends in January. A Castro victory would probably offer him less cover, given the historical animosity between the two.

Crowds of Castro’s supporters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa on Sunday night. The crackle of fireworks and honks of revelers could be heard near the presidential palace. Some of Castro’s supporters chanted, “Juanchi, you’re off to New York!”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated how long former president Manuel Zelaya was in office when he was removed by the military in 2009. He was in office for three years and five months, not 2 ½ years. The article has been corrected.

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