TEGUCIGALPA — Hondurans went to the polls Sunday with President Juan Orlando Hernandez seeking a new mandate despite a constitutional one-term limit, sparking fears of a crisis in the crime-wracked country.
An estimated six million people are eligible to vote, electing not just a president but also members of Congress, mayors and members of the Central American parliament.
Still "we have observed a quiet process; what we have seen so far has been positive," said Marisa Matias, a European parliament observer from Portugal, one of some 16,0000 monitors.
Polls closed at 4:00 pm (2200 GMT), officials said. Hernandez’s conservative National Party -- which controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government -- contends that a 2015 Supreme Court ruling allows his re-election.
"Thanks to everyone for strengthening democracy," Hernandez said on Twitter. "We are leading and we are going to win decisively."
The opposition, though, has denounced his bid, saying the court does not have the power to overrule the 1982 constitution.
Hernandez’s main rivals -- Salvador Nasralla, 64, a former TV anchor who represents the leftist Alliance Against the Dictatorship coalition and Luis Zelaya, 50, of the right-leaning Liberal Party -- have both said they will not recognize a Hernandez victory.
"It’s an atypical electoral process with an illegal re-election," said Zelaya after voting.
Nasralla, while visiting voting stations around the capital to rally his supporters, urged them to be vigilant for signs of fraud.
"They are out here offering poor people food, roof tiles or cement in exchange for their vote," he complained.
"I tell them that that’s how they are going to stay poor. I am going to create jobs for them."
Hernandez, 49, cast his vote early in his hometown of Gracias, in mountainous western Honduras, accompanied by his daughter and several National Party deputies.
"Four more years," supporters chanted as he arrived. Hernandez told reporters he had been up early, messaging with organizers to be sure the elections would take place smoothly.
This small country, in the heart of the "Northern Triangle" of Central America where gangs and poverty reign, has one of the highest murder rates in the world, though that metric has fallen during Hernandez’s four years in office.
What credit he claims from that progress is counterbalanced by tensions from a 2009 coup.
That year, then-president Manuel Zelaya was deposed by the armed forces, with backing from the right and from powerful businessmen, for nudging closer to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya -- no relation to the Liberal Party candidate -- was notably accused of wanting to change the constitution to vie for a second term.
- ’Between dictatorship and democracy’ -
The streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa, were festooned with the main parties’ colors on the weekend, and campaign booths were dotted around to inform voters on the ballots.
But some analysts warned the calm was deceptive, and tensions could boil over because of the president’s desire to hold on to power.
"For the first time, it’s not a race between conservatives and liberals, but between a dictatorship and democracy," said Victor Meza, a political analyst at the Honduras Documentation Center.
Alexander Main, an analyst at the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, questioned Honduras’s law-and-order achievements in an opinion piece written for The Hill, an online political news outlet.
"Honduras remains among the most dangerous countries for those who dare to challenge power," he said.
"In the years since the coup, hundreds of activists have been murdered while police and judicial authorities have largely failed to take action."
- 16,000 observers -
Hernandez’s top rivals in the race accuse the electoral board of preparing poll fraud to declare the incumbent president the victor. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal denies that.
"I hope you won’t get discouraged when false information starts going around. We need to stay vigilant," Nasralla told his supporters on Friday.
Marvin Barahona, a political science researcher, said the elections posed the risk of a "new crisis" because of the Supreme Court decision opening the way for Hernandez’s bid.
Apart from the presidential election, Sunday balloting will also decide the country’s three vice presidential posts, the 128-seat congress, 20 representatives in the Central American Parliament and the mayors of 298 municipalities.
Initial results were expected around two hours after polls close.— AFP