TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Hondurans on Sunday elected a new president whose first challenge will be defending his legitimacy to the world and ending a crisis over a June coup that has isolated one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Porfirio Lobo and Elvin Santos, two prosperous businessmen from the political old guard, are the front-runners. No official results had been released by late Sunday, but Channel 5 television said its exit poll indicated Lobo was leading with 55 per cent of the vote, trailed by Santos with 33 per cent.
HRN radio reported similar results from its exit poll.
But the candidates’ campaigns have been overshadowed by the debate over whether Hondurans should vote at all in an election largely shunned by international monitors.
The dispute has split Western Hemisphere countries, and voter turnout could determine how widely the next government is recognized. Rivals sides offered widely different estimates of turnout in subdued voting.
The United States, hoping to resolve its first major policy test in Latin America, is defending the election while leftist governments allege it whitewashes Central America’s first coup in 20 years.
Washington’s support matters most in Honduras, which sends more than 60 per cent of its exports to the United States, from bananas to Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear, and relies heavily on money sent home from the one million Hondurans who live in the U.S.
President Barack Obama’s government suspended development aid and anti-narcotic co-operation with Honduras over the coup. But U.S. diplomats say Hondurans have the right to choose their next leader in regular elections that were scheduled well before President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster.
Neither Zelaya nor the man who replaced him — interim President Roberto Micheletti — are running in Sunday’s election.
Zelaya, the left-leaning president ousted in a June 28 coup, said that overwhelming abstention would discredit the election and the U.S. would regret its stance.
“The United States made a mistake,” Zelaya said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from the Brazilian Embassy where he took refuge since sneaking back into the country from his forced exile. “If they are democrats in their country, they should be democrats in Latin America.”
After polls closed, he claimed in a statement that he had information from 1,400 polling stations indicating that abstention was as high as 65 per cent.
“As president of Honduras I declare this process illegitimate,” he said.
Electoral official Denis Gomez, however, said he thought turnout was robust, although there were no official projections. He said his most optimistic estimate was for a 70 per cent turnout.