Leftist holds commanding lead in Honduran presidential vote

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Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro acknowledges her supporters after general elections, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Castro claimed victory, setting up a showdown with the National Party which said its candidate had won a vote that could end the conservative party’s 12 years in power. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Leftist opposition candidate Xiomara Castro held a commanding lead Monday as Hondurans appeared poised to remove the conservative National Party from power after 12 years of continuous rule.

Castro declared herself the winner despite orders from the National Electoral Council to political parties to await official results.

“We win! We win!” Castro, Honduras’ former first lady who is making her third presidential run, told cheering Liberty and Re-foundation party supporters when only a fraction of the ballots had been tallied. “Today the people have obtained justice. We have reversed authoritarianism.”

The National Party also quickly declared victory for its candidate, Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, but the early returns were not promising.

By early Monday, Castro’s wide early lead was holding up. With 51% of the polling station tallies in, Castro had 53% of the votes and Asfura 33%, according to the National Electoral Council preliminary count. With more than 1.8 million votes counted, Castro held a margin of more than 350,000 votes. The council said turnout was more than 68%.

The National Electoral Council stopped updating the preliminary results just before 7 a.m. As the morning wore on, concern grew that there was a problem.

However, council systems engineer Gerardo Martínez explained that those early results were made possible through the Preliminary Results Transmission system (TREP), an effort to get preliminary results more quickly to the public.

The system had worked and on Monday morning, having served its purpose, it was disabled, he said.

“Its job was to divulge preliminary results and that already ended,” Martínez said. “Starting this afternoon we move to counting mode.”

Martínez explained that the council was now waiting for all of the physical voting place tallies to arrive at its warehouses to begin the process of counting the votes in front of representatives of the political parties. Then the updating of the results will resume.

The capital awoke slowly Monday after a long night of celebration. Streets were void of the usual work week traffic and instead conveyed the quiet calm of a holiday morning. As stacks of newspapers hit the sidewalks around the city, it was clear the country’s major outlets could not resist giving the victory to Castro despite warnings from the National Electoral Council to wait for official results.

Along Morazan Boulevard where thousands partied into the early morning, businesses remained boarded, still uncertain of whether it was safe to open. Graffiti poked a finger in the eye of the National Party, urging its leaders, especially outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández to hurry toward the exits.

Vanessa Soler, 20, walked briskly to work in downtown Tegucigalpa. A broad smile was evident even beneath her face mask when asked about the still arriving election results.

“It’s excellent,” Soler said. “It did justice, they respected the people’s decision.”

Like several people interviewed Monday, Soler expressed relief that the election hadn’t turned violent. And with the margin so wide she expected the other side would be compelled to recognize the outcome.

As for the possibility of Honduras having its first female president, Soler smiled again: “Now we the women are going to govern.”

José Lagos huddled in a knot of men sipping coffee and chatting about the election in the capital’s central plaza.

“Whoever wins you have to respect it,” Lagos said. He said the National Party’s 12 years in office was long enough. “A female president is what Honduras needs.”

On Sunday night, thousands of people packed Morazan Boulevard, blowing car horns, waving the Libre party’s red flags and setting off fireworks. After midnight, the street continued to fill with Castro’s celebrating supporters.

Anticipating vandalism, some businesses along the boulevard had covered their windows with wood or metal sheeting, but the celebration appeared peaceful.

In 2017, after a protracted election filled with irregularities, protesters filled the streets and the government imposed a curfew. Three weeks later now-outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner despite the Organization of American States observation mission calling for an election re-do. At least 23 people were killed.

Late Sunday, Castro promised a permanent dialogue with the Honduran people and said beginning Monday she wanted to open conversations with all sectors of society and international organizations to seek solutions for the Central American country, which is recovering from two major hurricanes, troubled by gangs and enduring corruption and high poverty. Her husband, the former president who was ousted by a military coup in 2009, did not appear on stage with her, but her son and daughter were there.

Castro received a late surge of support when Salvador Nasralla, who lost to Hernández in 2017, ended his own candidacy and joined her alliance in October. The move took a three-way race that could have favored Asfura to just two.

Castro rode a wave of discontentment with the National Party’s rule. Hernández became a national embarrassment with U.S. federal prosecutors in New York accusing him of running a narco state and fueling his own political rise with drug money. Hernández has denied it all and has not been formally charged, but that could change once he leaves office.

In addition to a new president, Hondurans on Sunday chose a new congress, new representatives to the Central American Parliament and a bevy of local races.

The Organization of American States observation mission said in a statement late Sunday that the voting had appeared to be “appropriate and peaceful.”

Sunday’s turnout was 10 points above that in 2017.

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