TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras careened toward a new political crisis Monday, a day after voters in the country turned out in record numbers to elect a new president and Congress.
At a midday news conference, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, the leftist president toppled in a 2009 coup and the husband of presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, told a hotel ballroom full of feverish supporters that their Free Party had rejected the electoral process and would “take to the streets if necessary” to force a ballot-by-ballot recount.
“To the streets!” his red-clad, boisterous followers screamed. “To the streets!”
Zelaya’s wife, who trails the top vote-getter by five percentage points with two-thirds of the ballots counted, was nowhere to be seen.
Her conservative rival, Juan Orlando Hernández, declared himself the country’s new president and promised followers that he would begin working to bring “peace and tranquility.” Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate, a weak economy and pervasive corruption, all of which have fueled waves of illegal migration to the United States.
As of late Monday, Hernández maintained a lead over a field of eight candidates with 34 percent of the vote and said he had received calls from Latin American presidents offering congratulations, including one from Sandinista leftist Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
“This win isn’t up for negotiation,” Hernández said.
The vote-tallying proceeded at a sluggish pace, with the percentage of ballots counted increasing from 54 percent to only 67 percent over the course of the day. Honduran election officials remained behind closed doors until late in the evening, when the election supervisor, David Matamoros, appeared briefly on national television and said the tallying would continue Tuesday. Some ballots had yet to arrive from rural areas, and others were en route from the United States.
But even Matamoros seemed to endorse a Hernández win, despite saying the previous day that no winner would be declared until all ballots had been counted.
“These results reflect an irreversible tendency,” said Matamoros, a former member of Hernández’s conservative National Party. “They are not going to vary."
Porfirio Lobo, the outgoing president and a close Hernández ally, also hailed him as the country’s “president-elect” and urged other candidates to accept defeat.
The balloting in this crime-plagued country appeared to proceed largely without incident Sunday, and international observers — including from the United States and the Organization of American States — said they did not detect irregularities.
U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske told Honduran television reporters that the process had been transparent and that legal mechanisms were in place for candidates to peacefully challenge the results.
“The will of the voters must be respected,” she said. “What we want is a process that works.”
But calls to refrain from declarations of victory fell on deaf ears, with the leftist Castro the first to declare herself a winner, only to reject the results outright as the official count put Hernández ahead. Most polls had her slightly ahead or tied with Hernández.
Honduras remains sharply split along class lines, particularly after the 2009 coup that removed Zelaya from office and banished him from the country for two years. Castro rose to prominence leading street protests in defense of her husband.
Now she and her husband must decide whether they’ll return to the streets once more, risking an escalation. Castro’s campaign rhetoric was moderate, but Zelaya was less restrained Monday, denouncing their opponents as a “fascist oligarchy” and working his supporters into a frenzy.
The U.S. State Department called for a peaceful resolution to any dispute. “Honduran and international observers, including those from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, reported that the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The United States calls on Hondurans to await the completion of the counting of official results and to resolve election disputes peacefully through established legal processes.”