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Rancher headed for victory in Honduras

Image: Conservative Lobo leads in disputed Honduran election
Supporters of the Honduran National Party celebrate the victory of their presidential candidate, Porfirio Lobo, at party headquarters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.Efrain Salgado / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Honduras has a newly elected president. The question is whether he can convince the world the vote was legitimate and show that Hondurans want to put a summer coup behind them.

Announcing that conservative rancher Porfirio Lobo was headed for victory in Sunday's presidential contest, election officials said more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, an increase from the last election, when about 55 percent voted.

That would be a victory for interim leaders who 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 President Manuel Zelaya.

Zelaya was sure to dispute the official numbers. He said information he received from polling places indicated two-thirds of voters stayed home, which he insisted meant the election had no legitimacy and should not be recognized.

The debate over whether Honduras should hold the election without 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, officials of the Supreme Electral Tribunal said at a news conference late Sunday. They said 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, of the ruling Liberal Party, quickly conceded defeat, saying it is time for "unity, the only path to confront the future and ensure the victory of all Hondurans."

Zelaya was ousted after going ahead with plans for a referendum on changing the constitution even though the Supreme Court ruled the vote illegal, and his removal was widely supported by Honduras' elite, including many in his own Liberal Party.

The move drew strong condemnation from the international community, but Sunday's election split Western Hemisphere countries. The vote had been scheduled before the coup as Zelaya's single term ends in January.

The United States, which suspended some aid to Honduras over the coup as it grappled with its first major policy test in Latin America, defended the election. U.S. diplomats said Hondurans had the right to choose their next leader.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela told reporters Monday that the election was fair and transparent but cannot be the last step in a process meant to fully restore democracy after President Manuel Zelaya was expelled in June.

Valenzuela commended Lobo for winning the election and becoming the next president of Honduras. But he says Honduras' leaders should establish a government of national unity and a truth commission.

Leaders in Brazil and other leftist governments in the region argued the ballot would whitewash Central America's first coup in 20 years and should be repudiated.

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.

Ex-president blasts U.S.
Zelaya said the Obama administration would regret its stance on the election.

"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."

Election workers in Tegucigalpa's slums, one of the areas of Zelaya's support, said voting there was slow. But turnout was higher in affluent neighborhoods where resentment against Zelaya runs highest.

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. Tourists have disappeared from Mayan ruins and rain forests, and multilateral lending agencies have blocked the country's access to credit.

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.

As president, Lobo said 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. Despite its support of the election, the United States insists it still supports Zelaya's reinstatement.