Nationalist Party candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas declared early today that he is the winner of this Central American nation's presidential race.
Unofficial electoral results show that Callejas, a 46-year-old agricultural economist, had a safe lead of 6 to 9 percentage points against his chief rival, Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse, of the ruling Liberal Party. The Liberals have governed Honduras for eight years, coming to power early in this decade after a series of military governments.
Despite Callejas' claim of triumph, there was no official confirmation of it. Vote counting was proceeding at a slow pace.
Throughout his campaign, which has lasted for almost a year, Callejas has stressed economic and government reform, proclaiming that Honduras was ready for a change after eight years of Liberal rule.
Almost 2 million voters went to the polls Sunday to choose a new president and other officeholders in an election that few believe will augur major changes for this impoverished but strategically situated Central American nation.
However, the election in Honduras, a staunch U.S. ally, is widely seen as furthering Washington's strategy of isolating and threatening neighboring Nicaragua, whose Sandinista government has been an anathema to the White House. This Tennessee-sized nation of banana and coffee plantations, refugee camps and military bases has played a pivotal role in U.S. strategy toward Nicaragua.
Voters were also electing three vice presidents, a 130-member Congress and representatives from the nation's almost 300 municipalities.
Analysts say that Callejas would be unlikely to press for the withdrawal from Honduran territory of two foreign military units--U.S. forces and anti-Sandinista rebels--that are linchpins of the White House effort to force out the leftist government in Managua.
There has been mounting concern here about the destabilizing effects of such concentrated military presence in Honduras.
The one-time quintessential banana republic has lately been called the "Republic of the Pentagon."
Both Callejas and his chief rival are seen as conservative and pro-U.S. Both were born into the Honduran elite and attended U.S. universities. Callejas is further to the right on economic issues and might institute austerity measures long sought by the international banking community, although he has stressed moderation. Neither would be expected to veer Honduras from its historical path as an acquiescent participant in Washington's Central American policy.
Indeed, independent observers say Callejas would be unlikely to challenge what many view as the real centers of power here: The Honduran military and the fortress-like U.S. Embassy complex, which each year dispenses more than $200 million in economic and military assistance to this nation. That amount--the second-largest U.S. aid package in the region after El Salvador--represents about one-fifth of Honduras' national budget.
"The elections won't change anything in this country," said Dr. Ramon Custodio Lopez, a well-known human rights activist. "Policy will still be dictated by Washington and the military."
U.S. officials agree that if Callejas is elected, it would be unlikely to signal a major shift in policy. The U.S. Embassy has insisted that it favors neither Callejas nor Flores, although press reports here have suggested that Washington sides with the more conservative Callejas.
"We plan to work closely with whoever wins," said a U.S. official.
Voting took place among heavy security and considerable enthusiasm. No significant violence was reported. Initial reports by an international team of 19 electoral observers--their mission financed by U.S. funds--indicated no significant problems, a spokesman said.
President Jose Azcona Hoyo, a Liberal, cannot by law succeed himself. The new president begins a four-year term on Jan. 27.
Callejas, who studied at Mississippi State University, won a plurality as a presidential candidate in 1985 but was denied office because the Liberal Party won more overall votes.
The campaign has been a protracted and hotly contested affair that lately has culminated in a series of widely criticized television advertisements.
The Liberal Party has recently attempted to portray Callejas as a polarizing right-winger, likening him to extremist figures in neighboring El Salvador. The Nationalists, in turn, have tried to link a prominent Liberal Party figure to Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the Panamanian strongman. In fact, both parties are fundamentally conservative, although the Nationalists are generally considered more right-wing and more closely allied to the military. On domestic economic issues, some compare the Nationalists' position to that of the U.S. Republican Party, while the Liberal stand is likened to that of the Democrats.