TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Chanting "take to the streets" Monday, Honduran supporters of the country's first major pro-left political party vigorously protested official presidential election results that showed their candidate losing.
Backers of candidate Xiomara Castro accused electoral authorities of fraud, saying they were manipulating results to hand victory to her chief rival, an old-style politician from the conservative ruling party.
Castro, wife of the president ousted in a 2009 coup, was trailing the top vote-getter, Juan Orlando Hernandez, by a margin of about 5 percentage points, according to the official tally with more than half of the ballots counted.
"We do not accept the results," Castro's husband, the deposed former President Manuel Zelaya, said Monday.
Hernandez's disputed victory, which is gradually being recognized by other Latin American governments, threatens to plunge the violent, dysfunctional country into an even deeper period of instability.
Behind the scenes, some diplomats and foreign observers were trying to persuade Castro to accept the results and use her remarkably good showing for a first-time party run to build a more effective political force.
But Zelaya seemed unwilling to countenance that, repeatedly telling reporters that no negotiation will be permitted that "betrays the Honduran people."
Zelaya spoke at a meeting in a hotel ballroom to which journalists were summoned for what was billed as a news conference with Castro. She did not show up, and the conference was much more political rally than informative session.
Hundreds of party supporters who invaded the room where the supposed news conference was taking place spent a full hour chanting leftist slogans. Then they heckled most of the reporters who attempted to ask questions.
Zelaya hailed the significant electoral showing for his wife's Free Party in its first run in a national election. But he and other party leaders contended that election officials have hidden 20% of ballots that would have gone in Castro's favor. He demanded a recount "vote by vote, list by list, ballot box by ballot box."
"Until we are shown otherwise, we have this victory: Xiomara Castro is the president-elect of Honduras," Zelaya said. "If necessary, we will take to the streets."
When he said that, the crowd erupted into some of the loudest chants of the session: "To the streets! To the streets!"
Asked by a Mexican reporter if that meant Zelaya was convoking popular rebellion, the crowd erupted angrily and pointed furious accusatory fingers at the journalist. Zelaya said the protest would remain peaceful.
When the hotel gathering ended, several hundred Free Party supporters streamed out into the streets of Tegucigalpa, a replay in some ways -- but on a smaller scale -- of the demonstrations that followed the 2009 coup. Police in riot gear followed close behind.
"These results are a joke on the Honduran people," said Marlin Orlando Sanchez, 64, a seller of construction materials and dedicated supporter of Castro. "It's like another coup."
Several international election-monitoring organizations thought the vote count giving victory to Hernandez's National Party was probably accurate. That's in part because any fraud probably took place months ago, when Hernandez supporters could use the state machinery to offer jobs and discount cards in exchange for votes. Meanwhile, numerous irregularities and complaints of intimidation were reported on election day, Sunday.
The National Party is one of two conservative groups that have dominated Honduras for the country's modern political history and clearly had a distinct advantage over opponents. The system was stacked against any challengers: Hernandez and his party control the election court and most of the judiciary, having removed unfriendly judges and prosecutors last year in what is often termed here as a technical coup.
Hernandez has already reportedly received several congratulatory telephone calls from other Latin American leaders, including Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, seemingly a more natural ally of Castro and Zelaya.
Hernandez held a victory rally Sunday night, starting with a fervent prayer led by his wife, then a speech in which he vowed to continue his controversial use of military police to fight Honduras' wild homicide and crime rate.
"Today the people voted to leave behind the political crisis of 2009 that left thousands in Honduras jobless, migrating and divided, that left us alone and isolated," Hernandez said, alluding to the coup that devastated the country, but without mentioning that he, like many other conservative politicians of the day, had enthusiastically supported it.