Monday, November 25, 2013

Honduras Leftist Disputes Results As Vote Count Drags On

Honduras leftist disputes results as vote count drags on

11:19pm EST
By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Leftist Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro refused to accept partial official results that show her conservative rival on course to win Sunday's election by a comfortable margin.

Castro, the wife of deposed leader Manuel Zelaya, and her team said on Monday that an exit poll drawn up for her party showed she was winning. Her team claimed fraud and accused the electoral authority of manipulating the result.

A partial count issued by the electoral authority gives National Party candidate Juan Hernandez 34.18 percent support, while Xiomara Castro had 28.84 percent, the authority said in an update on Monday.

The preliminary tally was based on a count from nearly 62 percent of polling booths. The vote count dragged on, and an election official said data from far-flung precincts was still arriving at the capital.

"We are going to defend our triumph at the ballot box and if necessary will take to the streets," Zelaya said at a news conference.

"Until proven otherwise, we hold triumph in our hands."

"We will seek a recount ballot box by ballot box, booth by booth, town by town," Zelaya added. "We are struggling against an oligarchy in the government of Honduras."

Castro, however, has not been seen or heard from since early Monday morning and questions as to her whereabouts were met with jeers by her supporters at the Zelaya news conference.

A group of about 500 supporters marched the short journey from Castro's camp to the Marriott Hotel, which sits right by the presidential palace and where the election tribunal is giving vote count updates. But the group soon dispersed under the gaze of waiting police in riot gear.

"The tribunal belongs to the National Party," said Santos Aguilar, a 53-year-old salesman and Castro supporter. "We're going to take the streets to defend our rights."

Minutes before Zelaya made his comments, Hernandez said he was open to a rapprochement with Castro, but was not willing to debate the result.

"The triumph won't be negotiated with anybody," he said. "The result is the one the Honduran people decided at the ballot box."

However, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras and the head of the European Union's election observers said the voting process was clean and urged the participants to respect the results.

Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup after his opponents accused him of trying to seek re-election, which is banned under the constitution. The debacle plunged Honduras into a deep political crisis and widened tensions between the left and the right in Latin America.

The deposed leader had hoped to stage a comeback behind his wife if she reached presidential office.

Honduras was a key ally of the United States during Central American civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and is the region's No. 1 coffee exporter.

Hernandez said Mauricio Villeda, the Liberal Party candidate lying a distant third who also initially challenged the partial count, had called to congratulate him.

Castro was first to claim victory on Sunday, citing an exit poll drawn up for her own party and telling cheering supporters, "I am the president."

Then the electoral authority published preliminary official results showing she was trailing Hernandez - indicating the possible continuity of outgoing President Porfirio Lobo's right-leaning economic policies.

Hernandez posted a photograph on Twitter late on Sunday of himself and supporters praying on their knees. "Thanks to my God, and thanks to the people of Honduras for this triumph," he wrote.

He has vowed a tough militarized response to drug gang violence that has earned Honduras the dubious distinction of having the world's highest murder rate, or more than 85 killings per 100,000 people.

(Additional reporting by Miguel Gutierrez; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Philip Barbara, Doina Chiacu)

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