Poverty, coup legacy in play as Honduras picks new president

A Honduran soldier counts boxes with ballots at a polling station in Tegucigalpa on November 23, 2013.

TEGUCIGALPA - Some 5.4 million Hondurans cast votes Sunday in a presidential vote with a new chance of breaking the century-old dominance of right-wing parties.

Four years after her husband was ousted in a coup, leftist Xiomara Castro, 54, is running neck-and-neck with ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez, 45.

If she pulls off a win, Castro could also make history by becoming the first woman president of Honduras, one of the poorest nations in Latin America after Haiti, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

"We are going to win this, and get our country back," she said, rallying supporters in jeans and a green shirt hours before polling stations opened.

And shrugging off some critics' suggestions that she might be taking orders from her husband in this male-dominated nation, Castro said Manuel Zelaya would be her top adviser, not the president.

"Definitely, I am the one who makes the decisions," she told AFP at an event with Radio Globo.

Whoever wins will face the challenge of reducing violence after gangs have turned the Central American nation into the world's murder capital.

And the election could also bring a political sea change in the divided country.

Since 1902, Hernandez's National Party (PN) and the Liberal Party (PL) - both conservative - have traded the presidency with military dictators.

"The Honduran two-party system is now the oldest in Latin America," said sociologist Matias Funes. "There has never been such a real chance (of breaking it) until now." Zelaya was elected Honduran president as a PL candidate in 2005.

But when he showed signs of moving to the political left and tried to reform the constitution, the military abruptly deposed him with support from Congress and the Supreme Court in 2009.

The military ousted the democratically-elected president with no vocal or active opposition from the United States - a fact that deeply undermined US credibility across all of Latin America ever since.

After returning from exile in 2011, Zelaya founded the Libre party with unions, farmers, teachers and liberals who protested the coup.

In the last opinion poll allowed by law last month, Cid-Gallup found that 27 percent of voters supported Castro, who is running for the Libre party, compared to 28 percent for Hernandez.

The survey showed PL candidate Mauricio Villeda in third place with 17 percent.

The candidates are vying to succeed President Porfirio Lobos, who was elected after the 2009 coup in an election boycotted by Zelaya's leftist allies.

"Hondurans are ready to have the first woman president," Castro told AFP this week, vowing to bring "democratic socialism" to a country where 71 percent of the population of 8.5 million live in grinding poverty.

Castro has taken pains not to align herself with socialist Venezuela. But she has cited Brazil under its popular leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva as a model for progress.

Under Lula, Brazil allowed its economy to work with markets and investors, even as the government successfully made poverty reduction a top priority.

"And look at all those people who kept protesting, in the streets: it took four years, but they have been able to reverse the course of a coup," a confident Castro said, speaking as if she had already won late Saturday.

"They have sent a clear message to Latin America, and to the world: Never again will anybody reverse the course of democracy in Latin America."