TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The Julian López Pineda elementary school is the closest polling station to the Tegucigalpa municipal dump. When the wind shifts, the stench of rotting garbage can buckle the knees.
But on Sunday afternoon, slowly and steadily, Francisco Murillo, a 76-year-old trash picker, walked carefully down the dirt path toward the school, determined to cast his vote for radical change in Honduras.
Like many living on the steep hillside margins of the capital, he said he would vote for leftist candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup.
“I had a job when Mel was president,” Murillo said, recalling when he worked as a bag inspector in a supermarket. Now he hunts empty bottles and scrap metal.
“I’ve got no pension, nothing,” he said. “I’ve had two strokes. I’m only alive thanks to God.”
Jobs. An end to corruption. A functional government. Reducing an astronomical murder rate. Hondurans have loaded a long wish list onto Sunday’s elections. But when results are announced Sunday evening or Monday, most people here seem to be hoping the place doesn’t go haywire again.
The tensions that led to violent protests after the 2009 coup still simmer in a country where class divisions are wide and violence common. A close election or cries of fraud could roil Honduras.
By most accounts, balloting proceeded fairly smoothly into the afternoon, with turnout looking strong and few reports of violence or irregularities. Five people were slain Sunday morning near a polling station in the remote, lawless region of La Mosquítia — a notorious haven for drug traffickers — but Honduran police said the men were drunk and politics wasn’t to blame.
A victory here by Castro, who campaigned alongside her husband, would be likely to tilt Honduras leftward along a path of “democratic socialism,” as the couple describe it. Their calls for a new constitution have deeply worried the country’s business class, powerful elites and quite a few others.
“We’re all afraid,” said Maria Teresa de Pérez Cadalso, casting her vote at a private boy’s academy in the Payaquí neighborhood, where spacious homes are fortified by high walls and concertina wire. “We need to keep the communists out.”
She voted for conservative standard-bearer Juan Orlando Hernández, the powerful former president of Congress who wants to deploy the military on the streets. He and Castro were virtually tied in polls throughout the campaign.
“Xiomara will win, unless the other side cheats,” said Gabriela Bonilla, who voted for Castro, as did the 12 other adults in her household, in a neighborhood where the streets are so dicey she’s can’t go out after dark.
Some complained that they’d be turned away from polls Sunday, including a few voters who were told they appeared on national registries as “deceased.”
“I’m not dead!” one elderly gentleman protested on Honduran radio.
But even here in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods, voters said they were willing to take a risk on an unconventional candidate — anything to turn their sinking country around.
“I want an end to impunity and corruption. More organization and efficiency. A country that works!” said Denise Jiménez, a lab technician who said she voted for Salvador Nasralla, a sportscaster-turned-candidate who founded the “Anti-Corruption Party,” one of nine parties crowding Sunday’s ballot.
“We need to clean out the whole government and give some new people a chance,” she said.
© 2013, The Washington Post