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Honduras, plagued by poverty and crime, picks a new president

Honduran presidential candidate for the Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE) party, Xiomara Castro (C), arrives for a meeting with members of the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in Tegucigalpa, on November 20, 2013
Honduran presidential candidate for the Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE) party, Xiomara Castro (C), arrives for a meeting with members of the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in Tegucigalpa, on November 20, 2013

Amid tight security, Hondurans went to the polls Sunday to pick a new president for their Central American nation, the world's deadliest and among the region's poorest.

The election pits Xiomara Castro, leftist wife of ousted former leader Manuel Zelaya, against conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Some 5,400 polling stations opened at 1300 GMT with a ceremony at a school in the capital Tegucigalpa, where the head of the electoral tribunal, David Matamoros, expressed hope the vote would "heal the wounds" of the 2009 coup d'etat that toppled Zelaya.

He also urged the 5.4 million voters to carry out their electoral duty with "faith, dignity and civility."

The candidates are vying to succeed President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected after the coup in a controversial election boycotted by Zelaya's leftist allies.

Factfile on Honduras, which holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday
Factfile on Honduras, which holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday

The heavily guarded polling stations, to which some 800 foreign election monitors have been dispatched, close at 2200 GMT. Initial projections are expected at about 0100 GMT.

Castro, with the Libre Party, could become the first female president of Honduras, the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.

In a tweet, the 54-year-old heralded the end of the current political regime.

Her main rival is Juan Orlando Hernandez, 45, the head of congress, who is a supporter of the 2009 coup and a law-and-order conservative who has vowed to bring order by flooding the streets with soldiers.

The message from the ruling National Party candidate has resonance in this country of 8.5 million that records 20 murders a day -- the highest in the world, according to UN figures.

"Who said fear?... Victory is near," Hernandez tweeted.

The government institutions are so weak and the police so corrupt that Honduras is on the brink of becoming a failed state.

The Partido Nacional presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, addresses a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on November 21, 2013
The Partido Nacional presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, addresses a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on November 21, 2013

Gangs run whole neighborhoods, extorting businesses as large as factories and as small as tortilla stands, while drug cartels use Honduras as a transfer point for shipping illegal drugs, especially cocaine, from South America to the United States.

"We want more work and less crime," said Sandy Rivera, 31, who sells used clothes in the San Miguel neighborhood.

Rivera complained bitterly about extortion payments to local gangs. "We can't stand the government corruption any more. There isn't even medicine in the hospitals."

Hernandez has promised to end violence by deploying 5,000 military police officers. Castro, in turn. has proposed a community police to fight local crime, and deploying soldiers to the borders to halt narcotrafficking.

Castro, who proposes "Honduran-style democratic socialism," wants to rewrite the constitution and "re-found" the country -- a move similar to the one that led to the coup that ousted her husband in 2009.

Hernandez, meanwhile, claims that he can create more than 100,000 jobs by supporting Hong Kong-style "model cities" in Honduras.

Many Hondurans are ambivalent about his proposal to use soldiers to fight crime, because abuses attributed to the military during the coup period are still a fresh memory.

A pre-election Cid-Gallup survey last month showed Hernandez with 28 percent support against 27 percent for Castro -- a statistical tie -- in a pack of eight candidates. There is no runoff, so whoever wins does so with a plurality of the vote.

Mauricio Villeda of the Liberal Party came in third with 17 percent support.

Since 1902, the Liberal Party and the National Party, both politically conservative, have traded the presidency with military dictators. Zelaya was elected president as Liberal in 2005.

"The Honduran two-party system is now the oldest in Latin America," said sociologist Matias Funes. "There has never been such a real chance (of breaking it) until now."

The next president will inherit a country with a 40 percent underemployment rate in which 71 percent of the population live in poverty.

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