By David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Hondurans headed to the polls on Sunday 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 favorite.
“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 U.S.-bound migrants and key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns over increasingly authoritarian governments have grown.
The vote also marks a point of diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with U.S.-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. He was expected to cast his ballot later in the capital.
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. “We hope today is a day of celebration and peace for Honduras.”
In Tegucigalpa, as polling stations opened up on a cool, sunny day, dozens of people could be seen lined up early at multiple locations.
“I’m against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking,” said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who was lined up outside his polling place and said he would cast his ballot for Castro, his young daughter standing next to him.
Polls close at 5 p.m., 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 over Sunday’s vote.
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-U.S. President Donald Trump.
A large number of national and international election observers are set to monitor Sunday’s voting, including an 80-person delegation from the Washington-based Organization of American States led by former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis.
“The voice of the Honduran people must be respected and the process must not lead to acts of violence,” Solis told Reuters.
Honduras is one of the world’s most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.
The pre-election tension was showing in some Tegucigalpa neighborhoods late Saturday, as some businesses boarded up storefront windows, and at least two auto dealerships located in an area near the president’s offices had emptied their lots of cars. The neighborhood 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, especially after Castro in October sealed an opposition alliance with the 2017 runner-up that she said “generated big expectations.”
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.
In addition to the presidential race, 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 neighborhood, 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.”
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Daniel Flynn and Lisa Shumaker)