By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Four years after the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya, forcing him out of bed at gunpoint and spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, he may be set for a return to the presidential office - as first husband.
His wife, 54-year-old Xiomara Castro, is running neck-and-neck against the ruling party candidate in a tight race to lead the violent Central American country in next month's election.
Castro was catapulted into the spotlight after the 2009 coup when she led protests against the ouster, and she is now running on a toned-down version of her husband's leftist populism.
Many see Zelaya, whose removal triggered a deep political crisis, as the power behind Castro's candidacy. At rallies, supporters often cheer more for him than for his wife.
She promises to "re-found" Honduras, saying that a century of rule by traditional parties has hobbled the country, which now has the world's highest murder rate.
"They couldn't achieve the development of Honduras, or organize the state," she told thousands of supporters at a recent campaign rally. "On the contrary, they turned the country into a sanctuary for paramilitaries and drug traffickers."
The election campaign has been dominated by debate over how to tackle the drug war. Mexican cartels have invaded the country, using it as a staging point for moving large quantities of South American cocaine to the United States.
An average of 20 people are murdered every day in the country of around 8.5 million people, giving it a stunning homicide rate of more than 85 for every 100,000 people in 2012.
"If we manage to stop drugs coming into our country, it will be much easier to ensure internal security for the people," Castro told Reuters in an interview at the couple's home where Zelaya was grabbed in 2009.
"The military has been in the streets for a long time supposedly combating the violence and it has failed," she added, saying she would use troops to guard Honduras' border from incursions by Mexican drug cartels rather than policing duties.
Castro is the candidate for the Liberty and Refoundation Party that Zelaya founded, a coalition of leftist politicians, unions and indigenous groups.
She has a slight lead over Juan Hernandez, candidate of the ruling National Party and the head of Congress, according to the latest polls ahead of the November 24 election. Still, the race is so tight that statistically they are tied.
Castro and her husband want to create a community police force to tackle the violence, while Hernandez wants a newly installed military police force to work alongside the army.
Outgoing President Porfirio Lobo is constitutionally barred from running again after serving a four-year term.
Whoever wins the election also faces serious economic challenges. Over the past six years, Honduras' domestic debt has more than quadrupled to $2.9 billion. The fiscal deficit, which currently stands at 6 percent of the gross domestic product forecast for this year, is increasingly difficult to fund.
Castro is a relative newcomer to a political world typically dominated by men. Her only leadership experience was in the Association of the Wives of Rotary Club Members of Catamarans, a city in the eastern state of Blanco where her husband began his political career.
She says hers would be an austerity government, promising to streamline spending on bureaucracy and to lure foreign investment via fiscal incentives for corporate newcomers.
While the stocky, mustachioed Zelaya is now running for Congress, Xiomara insists she is calling the policy shots.
"It would be beneficial for me to have a person on my side who can advise me," Castro told journalists in Tegucigalpa. "He consulted me during his presidency on public matters and he made the decision. Now it's going to be up to me to make the decision about what will be best for the Honduran people."
Questions remain over whether those behind the 2009 coup, a group made up of Honduran conservatives, businessmen and soldiers, will stand for Zealand's return to the presidential office.
But with the election so tight, and neither party likely to gain a majority, many believe the need to forge political alliances will provide a check on power.
"Whoever comes to power ... will have to drive consensus," said Ado Faculae, chairman of the powerful National Association of Manufacturers which supported Zealand's overthrow in 2009. "If they don't choose the road of political consensus they're not going to be able to govern."
Zelaya came to power in 2006 as a conservative but shifted to the left under the influence of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His presidency came to a premature end in 2009 when he proposed a referendum to amend the constitution, a move interpreted by opponents as a bid to seek a second term.
Honduras was plunged into a constitutional crisis with the Supreme Court ordering Zealand's ouster. Congress endorsed the ruling, accusing him of violating the constitution.
Just hours before the proposed referendum, soldiers bundled him into a plane and shipped him to Costa Rica where he spent a few months before returning to Honduras and setting up shop in the Brazilian embassy.
U.S. President Barack Obama denounced the "coup," and Honduras was suspended by the Organization of American States for two years until it was readmit in 2011.
The coup was widely condemned by the international community, which saw it as a worrying sign just as Central America appeared to be overcoming a long history of army dictatorships.
But it was the making of Castro, who became the public face of her husband's battle for legitimacy. Almost overnight, she went from attending charity lunches to street marches.
The OAS, which tried to mediate a solution after the coup, is confident that there will be no repeat of the turmoil of four years ago, no matter who wins this election.
"I don't see today any intention, any appetite on the part of any political actor, to embark on an adventure as destructive as what happened in 2009," Kevin Casas-Zamora, the OAS secretary of political affairs, told Reuters.
Castro has not renounced her husband's dream of reforming the constitution but she stresses presidential re-election would not be on the table.
On economic issues, she has campaigned for rural and urban credit programs, hoping to lure voters in a country where seven out of 10 people live in poverty.
"The country has to change," said Arlen Padilla, a 28-year-old tourism graduate at a Castro rally in Tegucigalpa. "That's a must."
(Writing by Lomi Kriel and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and Eric Wals)