TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The ruling party candidate held the lead in early vote counting to become Honduras' next president, while two of his four main opponents began crying foul early Monday over the results in the violent and impoverished Central American nation.
With just over half the ballots tallied by late Sunday, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the governing National Party had a comfortable edge over Xiomara Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup that has left the country politically unstable.
Hernandez and Castro went into Sunday's election neck-and-neck in opinion polls, and expectations of a close finish raised fears that a disputed result would produce more instability and protests. Voting went off peacefully amid a heavy turnout, however, and the uncertainty of the final results plus a cold, rainy night kept the streets quiet.
The winner will likely have no more than a third of the vote and face a divided congress, whose 128 members were also up for election. As a result, the political situation is unlikely to change in the failing state of 8.5 million people, which is home to the world's highest homicide rate and a transit point for much of the South American cocaine heading to the U.S.
Both candidates claimed victory, with Hernandez saying he would start Monday with the job of leading Hondurans out of the misery they've endured. Poverty and violence have climbed in the last four years under President Porfirio Lobo, also of the National Party.
Castro said her campaign's numbers gave her a victory by 3 points, then left her election-night party at a hotel and was not heard from the rest of the night. Zelaya urged her supporters to stay at the polls and keep monitoring the count.
"We don't accept the results," Zelaya said early Monday. "There are more than 1 million votes that have yet to be counted."
Salvador Nasrallah, a popular sportscaster and candidate of the Anticorruption Party who was in fourth place, also questioned the official returns.
"Our data do not match the official data that the system is transmitting," Nasrallah said.
David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court, said final results were not expected until Monday morning.
"The preliminary results we have given so far do not show any tendency or declare any winner," he said Sunday night.
Both U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske and Ulrike Lunacek, head of the European Union observer mission, said reports from the polls indicated the vote and subsequent count so far were regular.
"We had 110 observers in almost all Honduras states, and we have seen a transparent process with all parties represented at the table," Kubiske said, noting that there is a system in place for people to peacefully file complaints or contest the results.
Castro, 54, had led the race for months portraying herself as the candidate for change, promising relief from violence and poverty and constitutional reform that would make the country more equitable.
"From the data from our surveys and vote counts, I am the president of Honduras," she said early in the night. "The victory is overwhelming and irreversible."
Hernandez, 45, erased Castro's early lead in a field of eight candidates as he focused his campaign on a promise to bring law and order. As president of Congress, Hernandez 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.
"Today the people voted to leave behind the political crisis of 2009 that left thousands in Honduras jobless, migrating and divided, that left us alone and isolated," Hernandez said.
The number of people working for less than minimum wage of $350 a month in Honduras 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.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas contributed to this report.