Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Hondurans went to the polls amid tight security 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 electoral tribunal chief 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.
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. An estimated 71 percent of the population lives in poverty.
In a tweet, the 54-year-old heralded the end of the current political regime. She told AFP she was seeking "peace and tranquility" in Honduras.
Her main rival, National Congress President Hernandez, 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.
"I am happy, joyful that the Honduran people are voting peacefully... united to take our country forward," said Hernandez, 45.
He spoke surrounded by supporters, after voting in Gracias, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the capital.
Government institutions are so weak and the police so corrupt that Honduras is on the brink of becoming a failed state.
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.
That sentiment was echoed by Pedro Garay, a 72-year-old retired economist, as he left a polling station.
"The main problem is violence caused by unemployment," he said.
Hernandez has promised to end violence by deploying 5,000 military police officers. Castro, in turn, has proposed a community police force to fight local crime, and deploying soldiers to the borders to halt drug trafficking.
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 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 fresh in voter's minds.
A pre-election Cid-Gallup survey 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.
Since 1902, the Liberal Party and the National Party, both politically conservative, have traded the presidency with military dictators. Zelaya was elected 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."