TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Juan Orlando Hernandez has all but won the hotly contested presidential race in Honduras, electoral authorities said late Monday, giving the National Party another four years governing this country plagued by violence and poverty.
The electoral court declared Hernandez's lead insurmountable with about 68 percent of the votes counted from Sunday's election. Hernandez had 34 percent to 29 percent for Xiomara Castro, his closest opponent in an eight-candidate field.
"It's not the final result, but it's an irreversible trend," tribunal spokeswoman Lourdes Rosales said.
Castro's husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup that has left Honduras politically unstable, and poverty and violence have worsened over the last four years under outgoing President Porfirio Lobo.
Castro's candidacy was viewed as Zelaya's attempt to make a political comeback after being ousted with six months left in his term.
Zelaya said earlier in the day that their party would not accept the results showing Hernandez in the lead.
"We will defend our triumph, and if it's necessary, we will do it in the streets," he said.
Hernandez and Castro had entered Sunday's election neck-and-neck in opinion polls, and there were fears that disputes over the election results could bring protests and more instability. But only about 100 demonstrators rallied for Castro on Monday, and the capital's streets were otherwise quiet.
The electoral court's announcement came after an unexplained, hours-long lull in the release of vote updates during the day. The major candidates also disappeared from public view amid reports of meetings between the political parties. Neither election officials nor the parties offered any comment about the delay in returns.
Elections observers, who initially called the election clean, said they had no comment and would issue final reports Tuesday.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who was a staunch ally of Zelaya after the coup, was just about the only head of state to publicly congratulate Hernandez as Honduras' newly elected president on Monday.
Hernandez will likely face a divided Congress, whose 128 members were also elected Sunday. As a result, the political situation is unlikely to change in the failing state of 8.5 million people, which is home to the world's worst homicide rate and is a transit point for much of the South American cocaine heading to the U.S.
Castro, 54, had led the race for months while portraying herself as the candidate for change, promising relief from violence and poverty and constitutional reform that would make the country more equitable.
In the closing weeks, however, Hernandez, 45, wiped out Castro's lead as he focused on a promise to bring law and order. As president of Congress, Hernandez 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.
Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Luis Manuel Galeano in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.