TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Hondurans cast ballots for a new president Sunday in a country reeling from violence, poverty and the legacy of a 2009 coup, and the ruling conservative party candidate took the lead in early vote counting.
The electoral court said preliminary results gave Juan Orlando Hernandez, the candidate of the governing National Party, a comfortable edge over Xiomara Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in the military-backed coup.
The two had entered the day neck-and-neck in opinion polls. Hernandez erased Castro's early lead in a field of eight candidates with his new military police and the promise of law and order in a country with the highest murder rate in the world.
David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court, said final results were not expected until early Monday.
"The preliminary results we have given so far do not show any tendency or declare any winner," he said Sunday night.
Because there is no runoff, whoever wins will likely have no more than a third of the vote and face a divided congress, whose 128 members were also up for election. The political situation indicates that little is likely to change in the failing state, where violence and poverty have grown worse during the four years under outgoing President Porfirio Lobo, also of the National Party.
The predicted tight race raised fears of a disputed result that could produce more instability and protests.
But no major problems were reported at polling places, Matamoros said, adding that the turnout was high and voting had to be extended an hour to 5 p.m. local time.
Castro, 54, declared early in the vote count that she had won, while Hernandez, 45, said he was the winner, despite calls from all sides for everyone to wait for final results.
About 250 international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Organization of American States monitored the election. Ulrike Lunacek, head of the EU observers' mission, said reports from the polls indicated the process was transparent and the vote count regular.
"The results that you see on the web page (for the electoral court) are correct," Lunacek told Televicentro, appealing to the candidates to have patience and wait for the final count. Hondurans are troubled by their violence and also by worsening poverty. The number of people working for less than minimum wage of $350 a month in the country of 8.5 million has grown from 28 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.
"There is insecurity, fear, violence, hunger and unemployment. There are problems that are so deep that I doubt anyone can really solve them," said Jose Barreiro, a voter.
As president of Congress, Hernandez has pushed through legislation creating a military police force to patrol the streets in place of the National Police, which are penetrated by corruption and often accused of extrajudicial killings.
After casting his vote Sunday in his native city of Gracias, Hernandez urged people to support all the candidates of the governing party.
"We need representatives of the National Party to support the military police," Hernandez said. "I hope this is the busiest and most observed election in history."
Castro had led the race for months as the candidate for change, promising relief from the violence and poverty and constitutional reform that would make the country more equitable.
"Let's end the sad episode since the coup," said Juliette Handal, Castro's vice presidential nominee.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas contributed to this report.