TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' newly elected President Porfirio Lobo already faces an international crisis even before taking office: many countries of the hemisphere refuse to recognize his government, chosen in the shadow of a coup.
Election officials said Monday that that the conservative rancher had a strong lead in Sunday's presidential contest and his rival conceded defeat.
Election organizers also said that more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots — an increase from the last election — indicating that most Hondurans rejected calls by toppled President Manuel Zelaya to boycott the vote.
The country's interim leaders hoped a strong turnout would prove the vote's legitimacy and free this poor Central American nation from the international isolation that followed the June 28 ouster of Zelaya.
Early signals on their chances were mixed. The United States has said that it will recognize a free and fair vote, but it had made no comment following the election.
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, however, said Monday that his nation will not rethink its rejection of the election because that might encourage coups in other nations.
Zelaya was already disputing the official numbers. He said his information from polling places indicated two-thirds of voters stayed home, which he insisted meant the election had no legitimacy.
The debate over whether Honduras should hold the election without first restoring Zelaya to his office overshadowed the campaign.
Lobo, a member of the opposition National Party, led with 56 percent of the votes, with more than 60 percent of the tally sheets counted, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced late Sunday. Elvin Santos of Zelaya's Liberal Party was second with 38 percent.
Lobo proclaimed the election "the cleanest in the history of the country." Santos quickly conceded defeat, saying it is time for "unity, the only path to confront the future and ensure the victory of all Hondurans."
Honduras' army threw Zelaya out of the country after Zelaya he pushed ahead with plans for a referendum on changing the constitution even though the Supreme Court ruled the vote illegal.
Congress, the courts, the attorney general and much of Zelaya's own party endorsed his ouster, but the move was almost universally condemned by other nations and it presented President Barack Obama with his first major policy test in Latin America.
While the U.S. cut aid to Honduras after the coup, officials said they would recognize a a fair vote to elect a new president when Zelaya's term ends in January.
Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe joined a list of countries that are supporting the next Honduran government.
"Colombia recognizes the next government," Uribe told reporters Monday during the Ibero-American summit in Portugal. "A democratic process has taken place in Honduras with high participation, without fraud."
Many other countries, particularly those led by leftists, say an election held by a coup-installed government can never be valid, but it is Washington's support that matters most in Honduras.
The country sends more than 60 percent of its exports to the United States, from bananas to Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear, and relies heavily on money sent home from the 1 million Hondurans who live in the U.S.
Zelaya said the Obama administration would regret its stance.
"The United States made a mistake," Zelaya said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been living since slipping back in Honduras in late September from his forced exile. "If they are democrats in their country, they should be democrats in Latin America."
Zelaya has support among many poor Hondurans who believed in his promises to shake up a political system dominated by two political parties with few ideological differences and influenced by a few wealthy families.
Mauro Romero, 59, sat on the steps of the capital's peach-colored 18th century cathedral, now covered in graffiti saying "No to the coup!" He said he would not set foot in a polling station.
"Zelaya is the president that we elected. We don't want the same dinosaurs in power, people who have been there for 30 years, only getting fat," Romero said.
But many Hondurans simply want to end the crisis that has eroded an already stagnant economy.
Lobo, 61, promised to encourage private investment to create jobs while increasing social benefits in a country where 70 percent of the 7 million people are poor.
Lobo said that as president he would talk with Zelaya and suggested the deposed leader might be allowed to leave the Brazilian Embassy without fear of arrest. Zelaya faces abuse of power charges for ignoring the Supreme Court order to cancel the constitutional change referendum.
Under a U.S.-brokered pact, Congress is scheduled to decide Wednesday whether Zelaya should be restored to office as head of a unity government until his term expires Jan. 27. The United States insists it still supports Zelaya's reinstatement.