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Hondurans vote for president as leftist contender vies to end conservative rule

TEGUCIGALPA: Hondurans headed to the polls on Sunday (Nov 28) to pick a new president, with leftist candidate Xiomara Castro hoping to oust the right-wing National Party, whose 12-year rule has been beset by graft scandals, chronic unemployment and waves of fleeing migrants.

If she wins, Castro would become the first female president in Honduras. Her victory would mark the left's return to power for the first time since her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a 2009 coup.

She has gained favor from voters for her efforts to consolidate opposition to outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has denied accusations of having ties to powerful gangs, among other corruption scandals.

Recent polls have reinforced her status as favourite.

"We can't stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship," said Castro, mobbed by reporters just after voting in the town of Catacamas early on Sunday.

"It's now or never."

The candidate said she trusted that voters would report any problems they see and that international observers would also help to ensure a fair vote.

The election is the latest political flashpoint in Central America, a major source of US-bound migrants and key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns have grown over increasingly authoritarian governments.

The vote also has prompted diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with US-backed Taiwan.

Castro's main rival is the National Party's Nasry Asfura, a wealthy businessman and two-term mayor of the capital Tegucigalpa, who has tried to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent.

Speaking on Honduran television, Asfura said he would abide by the vote outcome.

"Whatever the Honduran people want in the end, I will respect. The ballot boxes will say everything," he said.

In Tegucigalpa, dozens of people lined up early to cast ballots.

"I'm against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking," said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who said he would vote for Castro.

Polls close at 5pm, and preliminary results are expected three hours later. Some 5.2 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.

Hernandez's disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, looms large. Widespread reports of irregularities provoked deadly protests claiming the lives of over two dozen people, but Hernandez's election win was ultimately rubber-stamped by allies on the electoral council.

Days later, it was vouched for by the government of then-US President Donald Trump.

Alexa Sanchez, a 22-year-old medical student, lounged on a bench while listening to music on her headphones and said she reluctantly voted for Castro.

"Honestly, it's not like there were such good options," she said. Sanchez added she would not be surprised by violence after a vote that she did not expect to be clean.

"Probably the National Party wins again ... everything is already arranged."

HARD CAMPAIGN

Numerous national and international election observers monitored Sunday's voting, including the European Union's 68-member observer mission.

"We advocate for free, clean and peaceful elections," said Chief Observer Zeljana Zovko, adding that her team had observed mostly calm voting with high turnout, although the majority of polling stations did not open on time.

In some Tegucigalpa neighbourhoods late Saturday, certain businesses boarded up storefront windows, and at least two auto dealerships near the president's offices had emptied their lots. The neighbourhood has been the scene of raucous protests in the past.

"The campaign has been very hard," said Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist and former dean of Honduras' National Autonomous University, noting that Castro "generated big expectations" in October when she sealed an opposition alliance with the 2017 runner-up.

Castellanos said post-election violence is possible if the race is especially close, if a large number of complaints are lodged and give rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud, or if candidates declare themselves victorious prematurely.

Political violence has already claimed more than 30 lives this year, including local candidates and activists across all major parties.

Even beyond campaign season, Honduras is among the world's most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.

In addition to the presidential race, representing more than a dozen parties, voters are also deciding the composition of the country's 128-member unicameral Congress, plus officials for some 300 local governments.

In Tegucigalpa's working-class Kennedy neighbourhood, 56-year-old accountant Jose, who declined to give his surname, said he would stick with the ruling party.

"I have hope Tito Asfura can change everything," he said, using the mayor's nickname. "Look, here the corruption is in all the governments."

Source: Reuters/ec

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