TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Hondurans cast ballots for a new president Sunday in a country reeling from violence, poverty and the legacy of a 2009 coup, and the ruling conservative party candidate took a slim lead in early vote counting.
With more than 24 percent of votes counted, the electoral court said preliminary results gave Juan Orlando Hernandez, the candidate of the governing National Party, a six-point lead over Xiomara Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military-backed coup.
The two had entered the day neck-and-neck in opinion polls, after Hernandez erased Castro's lead early in the eight-candidate campaign.
No major problems were reported at polling places, said David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court, adding that the turnout was high and voting had to be extended an hour to 5 p.m. local time.
Castro's party warned that voters should watch closely, urging them to return to their polling stations after voting closed to make sure the count was accurate.
"The eyes of the people checking the count will be fundamental," said Enrique Reina, Castro's campaign coordinator.
Polls before election day said the two candidates were in a tight race, raising fears of a disputed result that could produce more instability and protests in a failing state with 8.5 million people and the world's highest homicide rate.
Many, including U.S. Ambassador in Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, called on both candidates to wait for official results before declaring victory, a process that could take several days.
But Castro declared early in the vote count that she had won, while the National Party proclaimed Hernandez the winner. Hernandez made no comment.
Honduras' constitution says the victor needed to win only by one vote more than the runner-up. There is no runoff, and the electoral tribunal decides whether a recount is necessary.
About 250 international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Organization of American States monitored the election.
Hondurans are troubled by their violence and also by worsening poverty. The number of people working for less than minimum wage of $350 a month has grown from 28 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.
"There is insecurity, fear, violence, hunger and unemployment. There are problems that are so deep that I doubt anyone can really solve them," said Jose Barreiro, a voter.
Hernandez, 45, saw his poll numbers surge in recent weeks by casting himself as the candidate of law and order, the top issue for most voters in a country overrun by gangs trafficking much of the cocaine heading from South America to the U.S.
As president of Congress, Hernandez has pushed through legislation creating a military police force to patrol the streets in place of the National Police, which are penetrated by corruption and often accused of extrajudicial killings.
After casting his vote Sunday in his native city of Gracias, Hernandez urged people to support all the candidates of the governing party.
"We need representatives of the National Party to support the military police," Hernandez said. "I hope this is the busiest and most observed election in history."
Castro, 54, had led the race for months as the candidate for change, promising relief from the violence and poverty that have increased in the four years since President Porfirio Lobo took office.
"Let's end the sad episode since the coup," said Juliette Handal, Castro's vice presidential nominee.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, was deposed by his own Liberal Party after he started taking a populist line and aligned himself with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. While attempting to hold a referendum on whether to revise the constitution, something the Supreme Court called illegal, Zelaya was whisked out of the country at gunpoint.
The National Party won the regularly scheduled election later that year.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas contributed to this report.