Sunday's election will likely accomplish what the plotters of a coup set out to do five months ago: end the political career of leftist President Manuel Zelaya and replace him with a more moderate leader from Honduras' establishment.
And Washington, which had vowed not to recognize the elections unless Zelaya was reinstated, now appears to have decided it has few options but to do exactly that.
"In the end, the coup won," said Heather Beckman, a Latin America analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group. "It was a bad thing and it shouldn't have happened, but in the end there wasn't anything anyone could do."
Millions of poor Hondurans drew hope from Zelaya's left-leaning policies in a nation long ruled by a wealthy elite. But they now have no presidential candidate to represent them; the only one who backed Zelaya dropped out of the race last month with little support, saying his participation would condone the coup.
The leading candidates belong to the two main parties that voted overwhelmingly in Congress to support Zelaya's ouster _ including the one that got him elected before turning against him.
Zelaya, flown into exile by soldiers on June 28, slipped back into the country three months later and has since been holed up at the Brazilian Embassy. His term ends in January, and the constitution bars him from running again.
At first, President Barack Obama strongly condemned the coup, the first in Central America in more than two decades, and said the United States wouldn't recognize any elections conducted under the coup-installed government.
But his administration, eager to restore development aid and anti-drug cooperation with its old ally, has more recently signaled it will support the new government. Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Monday that the United States would "turn to international observers from civil society, and our own observations to determine whether or not these elections meet international standards."
"This is an electoral process that follows the normal electoral calendar under the Honduran constitution, and it had been under way for several months prior to the coup," he said, adding: "This was not an election invented by a de facto government in search of an exit strategy or as a means to whitewash a coup d'etat."
Valenzuela did not promise recognition of the vote, but his statement constituted a victory for interim President Roberto Micheletti, who has endured months of diplomatic isolation and sanctions since taking office. Micheletti has argued that the elections would show the world that democracy is intact in Honduras.
Zelaya wrote to Obama asking why Washington appeared to be changing its position, and called on Latin America's leaders "not to adopt ambiguous or imprecise positions like the one shown now by the United States." Many left-led governments in Latin America insist recognizing the vote is tantamount to legitimizing the coup.
"We find it regrettable anyone would want to cleanse a coup d'etat with an election process conducted in a country that has virtually been in a state of siege these past months," Marco Aurelio Garcia, chief international adviser to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said Tuesday of the U.S. stance.
Many Hondurans simply want to go to the polls and put the crisis behind them. About 2,000 Zelaya opponents marched in the capital Wednesday to encourage people to vote, waving blue-and-white Honduras flags.
"I have faith that the elections will be the end of the problem that Zelaya got us into," said Ana Castellanos, 26.
But others are boycotting to protest the months of strife, which saw the jailing of pro-Zelaya protesters and the occasional shutdown of anti-government radio and television stations.
"I have no intention of voting," said shop owner German Lagos, 36. "The elections will serve only to legitimize this coup."
Two explosions in Tegucigalpa added to tensions early Wednesday: An unknown artifact went off at the place where the Zelaya opponents gathered to march hours later, and police said a grenade explosion shattered a window of at the Supreme Court, which ordered Zelaya's arrest before the coup. Nobody was hurt.
The two leading contenders _ Porfirio Lobo of the National Party and Elvin Santos of Zelaya's own Liberal Party _ fought against Zelaya's campaign to change the constitution, fearing he planned to follow in the footsteps of his close ally Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and lift a ban on presidential re-election. Zelaya has said repeatedly that was not his intention.
Lobo, who lost to Zelaya in 2005, is benefiting from the Liberal Party's divisions over Zelaya's ouster. A wealthy businessman who favors jeans and cowboy boots on the campaign trail, Lobo campaigned as a hard-line conservative in favor of the death penalty in 2005 in this country beset by gang violence.
This time around, he has softened his tone, saying at a recent rally: "If we want foreign investment and tourists, then let's walk in peace."
Santos, a civil engineer who was Zelaya's vice president until resigning last year to run for president, has criticized the military's decision to exile Zelaya but not called for his restoration. Zelaya supporters consider Santos a traitor.
A U.S.-brokered pact signed by Zelaya and Micheletti last month left Zelaya's reinstatement up to the Honduran Congress. Zelaya predicted he would be back in power in a week. But Congress remained quiet until last week, when leaders said they would take up the matter Dec. 2.
"It was slap in the face of the international community, to the United States," said Manuel Orozco, a Central America expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
But in the end, the United States "allowed the pragmatic approach to prevail," he said. "They wanted a swift resolution in order to prevent greater instability in Honduras."
Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez and Kathia Martinez contributed to this story from Tegucigalpa.