Costa Rica promised Friday to restore ties with Honduras if its presidential elections are clean, joining other nations in rejecting ousted President Manuel Zelaya's insistence that recognizing the vote would legitimize a June coup.
The front-runner in Sunday's elections, Porfirio Lobo, welcomed the decision by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, saying in an interview with The Associated Press that he expected other Latin American countries gradually to follow suit.
"Some who are saying today they won't recognize the vote have told me they will recognize the elections," he said.
Lobo also promised that if he wins, he would include Zelaya in a national reconciliation talks and suggested that the ousted leader would be able to leave his refuge inside the Brazilian Embassy without fear of arrest. Zelaya has been holed up there since sneaking back into the country in September.
"They have to get him out. If not, how?" said Lobo, who declined to answer whether he would grant Zelaya a pardon on abuse of power and other charges.
"What I know is that if we want peace for Honduras, we have to bring him into the dialogue," he said.
Arias' decision to acknowledge the next administration is a new setback for Zelaya, who is urging the international community not to recognize the vote.
Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was a chief mediator in largely unsuccessful negotiations to restore Zelaya to power. He now says he will urge governments at the Ibero-American summit in Portugal next week not to punish the next Honduran government for the coup.
"If the elections are transparent, there are no accusations of fraud, the observers find there was nothing incorrect, I am going to ask Ibero-American countries to recognize the future Honduran government," Arias said in statement released during a visit to Israel.
Soldiers flew Zelaya into exile June 28 after he defied Supreme Court orders to cancel a referendum on whether to change the Honduran constitution. Opponents say Zelaya intended extend his time in power by lifting a constitutional ban on presidential-re-election, an accusation the deposed president denies.
Western Hemisphere countries, once united in condemning the June 28 coup, are divided on recognizing the results of the elections, which were scheduled long before Zelaya's ouster.
Left-led countries, including Brazil and Argentina, argue recognizing the vote is tantamount to whitewashing the coup.
But the United States, the chief source of foreign investment and development aid in Honduras, had indicated it will support the election if they are fair and clean. Panama and Peru have taken the same stance.
"It is important for Honduras, for Central America, for democracy, that more and more countries are recognizing the electoral process," said Lobo, the National Party candidate who leads opinion polls.
Washington, which has cut off development aid and anti-drug trafficking cooperation with Honduras, has warned that the Central American country must still implement a U.S.-brokered accord, which calls for the formation of a unity government and for Congress to decide on whether to reinstate Zelaya until the next president takes office Jan. 27.
Zelaya declared the accord a failure when interim President Roberto Micheletti tried to install a unity government last month before Congress has voted on the ousted leader's fate. Zelaya accused Micheletti of maneuvering to stay in power and violate the spirit of the agreement.
U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens expressed optimism that accord would be fully implemented after the elections.
"The newly elected government will have a vested interest that the Micheletti government did not have to engage with the international community," Llorens told foreign reporters.
Congress is scheduled to vote on Zelaya's fate Dec. 2. On Thursday, the Supreme Court recommended that lawmakers vote against reinstating him.
"Our preference is obviously that Congress restore Zelaya," Llorens said.