TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — After a day of relatively trouble-free voting in a tight race, Honduras appeared headed for a new political showdown late Sunday, as competing presidential candidates began claiming victory with less than half of the ballots counted.
Leftist Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, declared herself the “new president of Honduras” even as preliminary tallies showed her conservative rival, Juan Orlando Hernández, with a lead of at least five percentage points over Castro, followed by six other candidates.
Hernández told his supporters that he was the country’s new leader and that he was already receiving calls from several Latin American heads of state to congratulate him.
The vote count was expected to stretch late into the night, with many here anxious that a close, contested election could toss the troubled country askew once more.
The tense evening followed a day of balloting that international observers said was largely without incident or irregularities. “Everything was calm,” Enrique Correa, the chief of mission from the Organization of American States, said in an interview. “There were no signs of fraud.”
Turnout appeared high, with many coming out to vote with hopes for widespread change in one of the hemisphere’s poorest and most violent nations.
Support for Castro seemed strong in the rough neighborhoods on the steep hillside margins of the capital. “I had a job when Mel was president,” said trash picker Francisco Murillo, 76, recalling better days when he worked as a bag inspector in a supermarket. Now he hunts for empty bottles and scrap metal.
“I’ve got no pension, nothing,” he said. “I’ve had two strokes. I’m only alive thanks to God.”
Jobs. An end to corruption. A functional government. Reducing an astronomical homicide rate. Many here have loaded a long wish list onto Sunday’s elections.
But the same tensions that led to violent protests after a 2009 coup still simmer in a country where class divisions are wide and violence common.
“Xiomara will win, unless the other side cheats,” said Gabriela Bonilla, who voted for Castro, as did the 12 other adults in her household, in a neighborhood where the streets are so dicey she can’t go out after dark.
A victory here by Castro, who campaigned alongside her husband, would be likely to tilt Honduras leftward along a path of “democratic socialism,” as the couple describe it. Their calls for a new constitution have deeply worried the country’s business class, powerful elites and quite a few others.
“We’re all afraid,” said Maria Teresa de Pérez Cadalso, voting at a private boys academy in the Payaqui neighborhood, where spacious homes are fortified by high walls and concertina wire. “We need to keep the communists out,” she said.
She voted for conservative standard-bearer Hernández, a powerful former president of Congress who wants to deploy the military on Honduras’s streets.
But even here in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods, other voters said they were willing to take a risk on an unconventional candidate — anything to turn their sinking country around.
“I want an end to impunity and corruption. More organization and efficiency. A country that works,” said Denise Jimenez, a lab technician who said she voted for Salvador Nasralla, a sportscaster-turned-candidate who founded the Anti-Corruption Party, one of nine parties crowding Sunday’s ballot.
“We need to clean out the whole government and give some new people a chance,” she said.