TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Defying calls for boycott, more than 1.5 million Hondurans went to the polls Sunday, electing opposition candidate Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo as their new president in a vote that was condemned before it began by a number of countries in the region.
By 11 p.m. Sunday, National Party candidate Lobo had won more than 55 percent of the votes counted, according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which acknowledged technical difficulties that were slowing the tally.
Most Hondurans, according to opinion polls, expect Sunday´s election to lead them out of the country´s 5-month-old political impasse, which began with the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya.
The ousted president told supporters not to vote, claiming the elections validate a coup against his government. Voter turnout was more than 61 percent, according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, in elections Zelaya has labeled a “fraud.”
Roberto Micheletti, who has resigned temporarily from the Honduran presidency, praised the electoral process. “Every vote cast represents the value that we Hondurans put on our freedom to decide,” he said in a statement issued late Sunday.
Some international observers said Hondurans conducted a calm and orderly Election Day. Norman Caldera, who served as foreign minister under former Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños, said he went to six polling stations and was impressed with how well the representatives of different political parties worked together.
“If you didn´t already know, you could hardly tell they were from opposing sides,” Caldera said.
President-elect Lobo, 61, ran on the National Party of Honduras ticket and took a quick lead in the polls over his leading rival, Elvin Santos, whose Liberal Party struggled to remain in power after toppling one of its own, Zelaya. Santos served as Zelaya´s vice president and stepped down last December to run for the country´s top post.
One voter, 70-year-old Calixto García, a tailor, said he´s seen his fill of Honduran political events, including the country´s transition to democracy in 1980.
“Under the circumstances, these are the most important elections we´ve ever had,” he said.
He believes clean and transparent elections will lead to a resolution of the crisis – echoing a similar sentiment expressed by the United States, Panama, Peru and recently Costa Rica, as well as 73 percent of Honduras, according to a CID-Gallup poll published last month.
García said he voted for Pepe Lobo, raising an index finger dipped in ink to show he had proudly cast his vote.
Despite the reports of normal voting, however, about 500 people marching peacefully in the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula were repressed by tear gas and water cannons, according to observers from the Quixote Center, a U.S. faith-based, social justice organization.
Tom Loudon, leader of the Quixote Center delegation in San Pedro Sula, told The Nica Times that soldiers deployed on the march at around 12:30 p.m. Sunday, put on gas masks and began attacking the marchers “unprovoked.”
“The crowd just scattered, people went running in every direction, I was one of those,” Loudon said over the phone, still choking from the gas.
“It´s just pure unprovoked brutal aggression against many people who haven´t done anything; people are just walking down the street,” Loudon said.
Juan Barahona, who leads a resistance group critical of the de facto government and the elections, had told followers not to protest Sunday for fear of military repression, but he left it up to local chapters to decide. Barahona did not return interview requests before this posting.
Caldera, who has observed elections in Nicaragua and Costa Rica prior to the contentious Honduran vote, said Honduran democracy won out Sunday and dealt a blow to what he sees as a move toward leftist dictatorships in the region.
He said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was hoping for a low turnout to help the case for the restitution of his ally, ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
“Democracy rests with the will of the people, not the will of the international community,” Caldera said. “ Honduras is deciding its own fate.”
Zelaya´s restitution looked increasingly unlikely after Honduras´ Supreme Court recommended lawmakers decide against letting him serve out the rest of his presidency in a power-sharing government. Congress delayed its vote until after the elections, this Wednesday.
Alex Leff contributed to this report.
See the Dec. 4 Nica Times for more on this story.