Honduras is bracing for potential violence as more than five million people vote to replace President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a controversial figure accused of drug trafficking in the United States.
Left-wing opposition candidate Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party led opinion polls last month, but the ruling right-wing National Party (PN) – whose candidate is charismatic Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura – has had the benefit of better organisation and greater resources to run its campaign.
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For Sunday’s election, opposition fears of a rigged poll and reports of pre-election intimidation have led to high tensions.
Four years ago, Hernandez stood for and won an unconstitutional second successive term amid cries of fraud from the opposition and international observers.
That sparked a widespread protest, with the subsequent government crackdown leaving more than 30 people dead.
The country is ravaged by violent gangs, drug trafficking and hurricanes, with 59 percent of the population of 10 million living in poverty.
Voters queued up from dawn at some polling stations before they opened officially at 7:30am (13:30 GMT).
“I call on everyone to proceed with this process in peace, calm, without fear and without violence,” National Electoral Council president Kelvin Aguirre said.
Polls close at 5pm (23:00 GMT) in the single round of voting. Some 18,000 police and as many soldiers will be on duty around the country.
“We are deployed to guarantee the Honduran people that there will be security and peace,” armed forces general Tito Livio Moreno said in a press conference.
The PN has been in power since Manuel Zelaya – Castro’s husband – was overthrown in a 2009 coup supported by the military, business elites, and the political right.
Corruption and drug-trafficking scandals have engulfed Hernandez and many of his inner circle, including Asfura, in recent years.
Hernandez’s brother Tony is serving a life sentence in a US prison for drug trafficking.
Drug barons the president helped extradite to the US have accused him of involvement in the illicit trade.
Meanwhile, Asfura was accused in 2020 of embezzling $700,000 of public money and was also linked to influence-peddling in Costa Rica in the Pandora Papers.
The third major candidate of the 13 running in the presidential race, the Liberal Party’s Yani Rosenthal, spent three years in a US jail after admitting to laundering drug-trafficking money.
These scandals have strengthened former first lady Castro’s hand and she led by 12 to 17 percentage points in some opinion polls in October.
For many voters, the main issue worrying them is jobs.
Unemployment jumped from 5.7 percent in 2019 to 10.9 percent in 2020, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study by Autonomous University.
The country was also ravaged by two hurricanes in 2020.
As he begged for money at a traffic light with his eight-month-old daughter in his arms, Elvin Aguilar, 32, said he was hoping the new government would provide “work and everything else”.
“Xiomara [Castro], she can make things change in the country,” Luis Andino, 27, told the AFP news agency as he stood among a group of people outside the national trade institute trying to flag down motorists to offer them help to qualify for a driving licence.
Karen Amador, 22, a street vendor selling baleadas, a typical Honduran stuffed tortilla, said she would not vote as “none of them have anything to offer Honduras”.
Hondurans will also elect the 128 members of the National Congress and 20 representatives of the Central American Parliament.