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TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro looked set to put the left back in power 12 years after her husband was ousted in a coup, even as the vote count for Sunday’s election unexpectedly paused for a few hours on Monday morning.
Castro, who would be the Central American nation’s first female president, has promised big changes in Honduras including a constitutional overhaul, United Nations support in the fight against corruption, and looser restrictions on abortion.
She has also floated the idea of dropping diplomatic support for Taiwan in favor of China, a policy proposal keenly watched in Washington, Beijing and Taipei.
With just over half the ballots counted, Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, held a nearly 20-point lead over conservative Nasry Asfura, the capital’s mayor and candidate for the ruling National Party, who won 34% according to a preliminary tally. However, the tally had not been updated for several hours as of late Monday morning.
Jubilant celebrations broke out at Castro’s campaign headquarters on Sunday as the vote count progressed and her lead held up, with supporters chanting “JOH out” in reference to two-term President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party.
Hernandez is deeply unpopular and has been implicated in a drug trafficking case in a U.S. federal court. He denies wrongdoing, but could face an indictment when he leaves office.
“We have turned back authoritarianism,” Castro told supporters late on Sunday, surrounded by her Libre Party faithful, aides and family, including her husband Zelaya, who was ousted when business and military elites allied against him, ushering in a dozen years of National Party rule.
Zelaya was also implicated by a witness in a U.S. court of having taken a drug bribe. He denied the accusation.
A self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where the left has rarely been popular and few women hold public office, Castro has won support of Hondurans tired of corruption and the concentration of power since 2009.
Results of the election initially rolled in quickly, a contrast to four years ago when a close outcome and delays with the count led to a contested result and deadly protests after widespread allegations of cheating.
The National Party campaign offices were deserted overnight.
‘PEACE AND JUSTICE’
If she delivers on campaign pledges, Castro could begin to reverse a weakening of the Honduran justice system that has benefited corrupt and criminal groups, a trend seen across Central America in recent years.
Her manifesto states that she will enlist help from the United Nations to build an agency to tackle corruption among public officials, while also creating more independence for prosecutors.
Business leaders quickly offered congratulations and Castro promised to work “hand in hand” with the private sector.
“We’re going to form a government of reconciliation, a government of peace and justice,” she said.
On Monday morning, 30-year-old Kayla Patricia Sanchez, a tortilla vendor, said she hoped for a peaceful transition as a new government took control.
“That is the most important thing, and that the leader who comes now again is a good ruler, better than the one before,” Sanchez said as she worked from her small stand off a busy street.
However, critics have painted her as a dangerous radical, recalling Zelaya’s closeness to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
In her Sunday night speech, Castro vowed to strengthen direct democracy by holding referendums on key policies. Elsewhere in Latin America, that tool has in fact strengthened presidential power, at times.
A planned referendum by Zelaya on constitutional reform including allowing a president to be re-elected for a second term was a catalyst for the coup against him, with elites uncomfortable about his alliance with Chavez.
Despite such resistance to re-election, a top court packed with current President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s allies later changed the constitution to allow him a second term.
Early on Monday, Castro thanked Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Twitter for a message congratulating her.
The election took place against a backdrop of poverty exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, adding to anger fueled by scandals that helped pushed record numbers of migrants to leave for the United States.
Castro, who sought the presidency twice earlier, including a short run in 2017 before she stood down to back another candidate, seized on the unpopularity of outgoing Hernandez.
The National Party’s candidate, Asfura, was at pains to keep his distance from the president during the election campaign.
Asfura urged voters to show patience in a social media post, but stopped short of conceding.
The fate of Honduras’ 128-member Congress remained up in the air with no results published. If the National Party keeps control, it could complicate life for a Castro administration.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City Writing by Cassandra Garrison Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Daniel Flynn and Matthew Lewis)