TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The main challenger to Honduras' president held an unexpected lead Monday in early election returns, but the release of updated results essentially ground to a halt and both sides claimed victory while rallying supporters to the streets.
The country's electoral court reported in the evening that opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had about 45.2 percent of the vote to 40.2 for conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez, with a hair under 58 percent of the ballots counted. That was only marginally different from the previous update around 2 a.m., when 57 percent had been tabulated.
Hernandez, an ally of the U.S., had gone into the election predicted to win based on his popularity for fighting crime, but his party also drew heavy criticism for getting a court to override a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms. Corruption cases also tainted the administration.
Turnout in Sunday's vote appeared to be heavy across the country, with relatively minor irregularities reported.
The electoral court's slowness in updating returns after announcing the initial partial results left many asking whether attempts were being made to change the outcome.
Court president David Matamoros announced that all the votes should be tallied by midday Thursday. He said the tribunal could not give results until it had all of the votes, but did not explain why partial results were announced publicly and then not updated.
Julio Navarro, a sociologist and political analyst in Tegucigalpa, said the electoral court "keeps failing us."
"Last night it promised official results early and didn't give them to us until dawn and still hasn't offered more information," Navarro said.
Absent an official outcome, Nasralla led jubilant, flag-waving supporters in chants of "Yes, we did!"
"There is no way to reverse this result," Nasralla said. "I am the new president of Honduras. ... We defeated the government's fraud."
Reynaldo Sanchez, president of the ruling National Party, sent a recorded message to members saying it was time "to prepare our people to defend the triumph in the streets." The party's verified Twitter account, meanwhile, trumpeted "4 more years" and a "total victory" for Hernandez.
The president called for his own backers to be patient and await a final result, saying, "We are doing well."
"May there be peace, tranquility, and may there be no problems," said Luis Lopez, a Honduran voter. "May he who wins win, and may he who loses acknowledge that he lost. That is what we want."
The Electoral Observation Coalition N-26, a nonpartisan civil society group, expressed concern.
"The lack of official data generates unnecessary speculation in the population, is unsettling and does not favor the transparency and legitimacy of the process," the group said.
Manuel Orozco, a senior fellow with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said it would be embarrassing for the government to back away from the preliminary results.
"The international community has been working with them. They all say that the election process, the election itself seemed to be clean and not violent," he said. "It would really be very surprising that (Hernandez) could win with the vote from some of the rural communities. If anything I think they are probably discussing how to present the results."
Nasralla, a 64-year-old sportscaster and one of the country's best-known television personalities, was making his second bid for the presidency. Although he has a reputation as conservative, he ran as the candidate of the Alliance Against Dictatorship, a coalition formed with the leftist party of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a military coup in 2009.
Experts said that should Nasralla prevail, forming a coalition government with Zelaya's party could be complicated.
"There will be serious problems in the future, and it is likely that Zelaya will win (those disagreements) because of his broad political experience," Navarro said.
The alliance campaigned on eradicating corruption and bringing in a new economic model, but offered few details beyond its interest in moving away from privatization and other free-market economic policies.
The preliminary result "suggests Hondurans are more unhappy than we might have expected with the corruption of this government and some of the human rights issues," said Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at WOLA, a Washington-based nonprofit monitoring rights in Latin America.
Honduras has an anti-corruption mission backed by the Organization of American States, which has worked for more than a year to help strengthen the country's crime-fighting institutions. But Nasralla said he wants a system more like that in Guatemala, where a U.N.-supported commission has worked with local prosecutors for more than a decade to pursue corruption cases that have even reached the presidential office.
Nasralla also vowed to continue extraditing drug traffickers, a widely popular policy.
Hernandez built his support largely on a drop in violence in this impoverished Central American country. The National Autonomous University says the homicide rate has fallen from a dizzying high of 91.6 per 100,000 people in 2001 to 59 as of the most recent statistics — a remarkable decrease, though even at the current rate Honduras remains one of the deadliest places in the world.
But corruption and drug trafficking allegations cast a shadow over Hernandez's government.
A convicted trafficker testified in a New York courtroom this year that he met with the president's brother to get Honduras' government to pay its debts to a company that the trafficker's cartel used to launder money. Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, ex-leader of the gang known as the Cachiros, testified that Antonio Hernandez asked him for a bribe in exchange for government contracts, an allegation the brother has denied.
In September the son of former President Porfirio Lobo, of Hernandez's party, was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring with traffickers and Honduran police to smuggle cocaine to the United States.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas reported this story in Tegucigalpa and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.