A flamboyant TV host was on course on Tuesday to stage an upset in Honduras’ presidential elections after polls showed that he was edging out favorite and US-friendly incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez.
With about 70 percent of ballots counted, TV entertainer Salvador Nasralla was leading by a margin of five points, election official Marcos Ramiro Lobo told Reuters on Monday afternoon, by which time results updates had ground to a halt
The lead was too large for Hernandez to overcome, Lobo said, without saying what percentage of the vote Nasralla secured. An initial tally encompassing more than half of ballots early on Monday gave Nasralla 45 percent and Hernandez 40 percent.
One of the poorest nations in the Americas, Honduras has been blighted by years of gang violence, giving it one of the world’s highest murder rates. However, Hernandez made inroads in tackling the problem and was expected to win before the vote.
Turnout in Sunday's vote appeared to be heavy across the country, with relatively minor irregularities reported.
The electoral court's slowness in updating returns after announcing the initial partial results left many asking whether attempts were being made to change the outcome.
Later on Monday, David Matamoros, president of the electoral tribunal, said it might be ready to deliver more definitive results by Thursday, a gap that risks stoking tension in a violent country known for electoral strife. He did not explain why partial results were announced publicly and then not updated.
Absent an official outcome, Nasralla led jubilant, flag-waving supporters in chants of "Yes, we did!"
"There is no way to reverse this result," Nasralla said. "I am the new president of Honduras. ... We defeated the government's fraud."
Nasralla, a self-described centrist, headed a left-right coalition called the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, and claimed victory on Monday - as did Hernandez.
Nasralla is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup after he proposed a referendum on his re-election. The dramatic comeback by the one-time leftist risks fueling concern in Washington.
Breaking with tribunal colleagues, Lobo said Nasralla appeared certain to win, signaling that in-house experts at the electoral body regarded his lead as “irreversible.”
Hernandez was credited with lowering the murder rate and boosting the economy, but he was also hurt by accusations of ties to illicit, drug-related financing that he denies.
He had gone into the election predicted to win based on his popularity for fighting crime, but his party also drew heavy criticism for getting a court to override a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms. Corruption cases also tainted the administration.
Washington sees Hernandez as a dependable ally in tackling drug trafficking and gangs, as well as in helping to control the flow of migrants to the United States. Nasralla at the helm would take the United States into unfamiliar territory.
Many believe coalition coordinator Zelaya is the true force behind Nasralla. Although Zelaya is viewed as a traditional Latin American leftist, Honduras business figures say he is a political opportunist and questioned his reliability.
Experts said that should Nasralla prevail, forming a coalition government with Zelaya's party could be complicated.
The preliminary result "suggests Hondurans are more unhappy than we might have expected with the corruption of this government and some of the human rights issues," said Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at WOLA, a Washington-based nonprofit monitoring rights in Latin America.
Honduras has an anti-corruption mission backed by the Organization of American States, which has worked for more than a year to help strengthen the country's crime-fighting institutions.
But Nasralla said he wants a system more like that in Guatemala, where a UN-supported commission has worked with local prosecutors for more than a decade to pursue corruption cases that have even reached the presidential office.
Nasralla also vowed to continue extraditing drug traffickers, a widely popular policy.