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Honduran president pulls ahead in vote, but opposition says election is being stolen

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has pulled ahead of challenger Salvador Nasralla in a new partial vote count, amplifying claims by Nasralla's supporters that Sunday's presidential election is being stolen and edging Honduras toward a political crisis.

Nasralla, a television personality with little political experience, said in a post on Facebook that he will not recognize the official vote count because he believes the results have been manipulated.

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Nasralla says he would not abide "the results of the cheating system of the electoral court," which counts the ballots.

David Matamoros, who heads the court, said the final vote would not be released Wednesday as planned because of a computer failure. "We apologize to the people of Honduras for the situation that has been presented today," he said in a tweet. "In almost all elections there are faults in the system, but never at a critical time."

He estimated the final results would be released early Thursday.

Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla kneel in prayer during a protest outside the National Institute of Professional Training, where election ballots are stored.
Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla kneel in prayer during a protest outside the National Institute of Professional Training, where election ballots are stored. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

Many Hondurans have already concluded that fraud has been committed, and there was a sense of inevitability that Hernandez would be declared the winner.

That was a dramatic shift from Monday morning, when it appeared that Nasralla had pulled off a stunning victory over Hernandez, who is running for a second term. With 58% of the votes counted, Nasralla was beating Hernandez by 5 percentage points, or 93,975 votes.

On Tuesday, after more than 24 hours of unexplained silence from the electoral court and cries for more transparency from international election monitors, new vote tallies were released that showed a sudden and sharp shift in favor of the president. Nasralla's lead had shrunk to 48,388 votes.

On Wednesday, that lead dwindled to 24,282 votes, then to 16,679.

By evening, with 83% of ballots counted, Hernandez was leading by 2,911.

Whatever the outcome, Honduras appeared to be heading for a political crisis. Both Hernandez and Nasralla have declared victory, and on Wednesday, supporters of both took to the streets.

The election tribunal is appointed by Congress, which is controlled by Hernandez's National Party. Hernandez also controls the army — which is charged with transporting ballots — as well as all appeals processes.

Backers of Nasralla and his Alliance Against Dictatorship say members of the tribunal manipulated results in favor of Hernandez, which the tribunal denies. Leaders of the coalition, along with representatives of a political party whose candidate was in third place, say vote tallies provided to the parties at each polling place after the vote show Nasralla is the clear victor.

Representatives of the National Party say their analysis of those tallies shows Hernandez winning.

Outside of the tribunal's headquarters in the capital, Tegucigalpa, on Wednesday, supporters of Nasralla waved red flags and burned banners bearing the face of the president, whose supporters staged a counter-protest.

Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla chant slogans as they protest what they call electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla chant slogans as they protest what they call electoral fraud in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

"The only one that can defend these votes is the Honduran people," Nasralla told reporters, urging his backers across the country to descend on the capital.

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The contested election has sparked fears of violence and has drawn calls for greater transparency from around the globe.

The European Parliament, the Organization of American States and the local evangelical and Catholic churches have all urged calm.

A coalition of U.S.-based faith, labor and immigrant-rights groups signed a letter calling on the U.S. government and the Organization of American States "to insist upon full transparency in the vote count and a review of the electoral process to ensure that the elections were free and fair and represent the will of the Honduran people."

The coalition also urged Honduran authorities to respect the rights of citizens to "exercise their right to freedom of association and peaceful protest."

Rosemary Joyce, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley who has spent three decades studying Honduras, said one fear is that Hernandez could call in the army to suppress protesters supporting Hernandez.

"He could militarize," Joyce said.

She said it was unclear whether election officials had actually tampered with the vote. After Nasralla's strong showing in the initial results, it appeared election officials had shifted to counting votes in the districts likely to favor Hernandez, she said, which could explain his improved showing.

Elections in Honduras are frequently fraught with problems, she said. In the past, election officials have declared winners well before all of the votes have actually been counted, instead predicting who will win based on early returns.

The 2013 presidential election that brought Hernandez to power was plagued with allegations of fraud, vote-buying and other irregularities.

This month's election was steeped in controversy even before voters went to the polls.

It dates back to 2009, when Hernandez backed a military coup against former President Manuel Zelaya in part because Zelaya had proposed running for a second term, which at the time was barred by the constitution.

After Hernandez was elected president in 2013, several Supreme Court judges appointed by Congress voted to overturn the constitutional ban on term limits, and Hernandez announced his campaign for reelection.

Hernandez is liked by U.S. officials for his cooperation in efforts to reduce northward migration and violence in Honduras, where the homicide rate — among the highest in the world — has fallen in recent years. But he and his party have been dogged by allegations of corruption and ties to criminal groups.

Hernandez has been accused of being involved in the diversion of public funds to his election campaign, and many believe he could be prosecuted.

Nasralla, a 64-year-old ex-game show host, is an ally of Zeyala. He ran a populist campaign, pledging to lower taxes and fight corruption.

Twitter: @katelinthicum

UPDATES:

7:30 p.m.: This story was updated with news that Hernandez is now in leading the vote count.

This story was originally published at 5:05 p.m.

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