TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — New partial results in Honduras' presidential election wiped out challenger Salvador Nasralla's lead over incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Wednesday, raising tensions in the country as the vote count neared completion.
An initial five-point surprise lead for the challenger from the leftist Libre alliance steadily dwindled since the first results were reported early Monday and slipped away entirely by Wednesday evening. With 83 percent of the votes tallied, Hernandez had a marginal advantage of 42.21 percent to 42.11 percent for Nasralla, according to the latest returns posted on the electoral court's website.
A long pause in updated returns that followed the initial report of Nasralla's lead has fed suspicions among his supporters.
Nasralla alleged manipulation of the results and called for his supporters to defend the vote in the streets.
"The government doctored the electoral ballots, but I will defend the votes anywhere," Nasralla said without offering specific evidence of manipulation.
He called on the 500 international election observers in the country to form a special commission to investigate. "Or else Hernandez will steal the victory, and I won't tolerate it," he said.
He and Hernandez have claimed victory since Sunday's vote.
Thousands of flag-waving opposition alliance supporters marched down two central boulevards in the capital Wednesday heading for the electoral court facilities where the vote count was under way.
Karo Avila, a college student studying journalism, was among them. "I am from the (incumbent) National Party and I'm ashamed by what is happening because I see how some lend themselves to the whims of those who don't want to let go of the government," Avila said.
Sonia Garcia, who works in a store in one of Tegucigalpa's malls, called for Hernandez to resign "for our country's peace."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged the candidates to respect the official results once they are available.
"We await the final tabulation of results by election authorities and urge the authorities to complete their work without undue delay," Nauert said Wednesday. "The United States urges calm and patience as the results are tabulated."
Several U.S. lawmakers expressed concern and urged transparency.
An election observation mission from the Organization of American States has urged calm. Rumors circulated Tuesday that the military was positioning troops throughout the country, but the government responded that the convoys of military trucks seen on highways were transporting election materials.
The European Union's election observation team criticized the electoral court Tuesday over the delay in releasing results. Later, the court announced that results would be available Wednesday night instead of Thursday as it had previously said.
Nasralla and supporters of the opposition alliance are sensitive to any whiff of election shenanigans. It was Hernandez's National Party that orchestrated the coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office in 2009.
Zelaya formed the Libre Party and his wife, Xiomara, lost to Hernandez in 2013 as its candidate. Libre formed an alliance for the 2017 election and chose Nasralla, a sportscaster and television personality, as its candidate.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.