A cattle rancher and former congressman appeared headed for an easy victory Sunday in presidential elections that Hondurans hope would end the worst political crisis here in decades.
Early official poll results showed that conservative businessman Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, 61, had received 52.09 percent of the votes, trouncing former Vice President Elvin Santos of the Liberal Party.
The preliminary count showed Santos with 34.4 percent.
The largely peaceful election was a boon for the acting Honduran government, which was under heavy criticism here and abroad for holding a regularly scheduled presidential election under controversial circumstances.
Lobo, a member of the opposition National Party, has kept a neutral position in the political crisis that has polarized Honduras since President Manuel `”Mel” Zelaya was forced out of the country at gunpoint June 28.
Most regional leaders, who condemned the coup, have said they don’t plan to recognize the election. The United States had said it would recognize the winner, then backtracked.
Zelaya supporters told registered voters to stay home, and some went as far as planting minor bombs throughout the capital to create a climate of fear.
The former president of congress, Lobo said his main objective would be to launch a national dialogue with all sides — including church and even Zelaya. He refused to mention any proposals, saying his chief job will be to listen to the people.
“We have to do whatever it takes for peace,” Lobo told The Miami Herald on Friday. “We need dialogue that’s broad, with all sectors represented. It’s the only way. Staying in conflict doesn’t help.”
Zelaya remains at the Brazilian Embassy, waiting word on whether he’ll be allowed to finish his term. Lobo has refused to say what his plans are for the fiery leftist, who antagonized the country’s power elite by insisting on a referendum that could have paved the way to a new constitution.
Lobo is a rancher and farmer who served three terms in Congress. A longtime member of Honduras’ political establishment, he lost the 2005 race to Zelaya, a loss Lobo attributed to fraud.
A 1970 business graduate of the University of Miami, Lobo said he would defer major decisions on Zelaya’s future to a dialogue team which will hatch a “national plan.”
“The dialogue I’m talking about is for Jan. 27 forward,” he said. “This country has to unite. We are not going to agree on everything, but we can walk together on the points we do agree on.”
The elections took place even as some denounced the event as illegal, product of a de facto regime that had repressed the opposition. Clashes were reported in San Pedro Sula, where 500 people who marched through the streets to protest the election were dispersed by tear gas.
A Reuters reporter was injured when protesters began breaking glass and throwing rocks, the news agency reported.
Official voter turnout numbers were not released early Sunday night. Voters and poll workers said turnout seemed low, although long lines were reported in affluent neighborhoods where support for Zelaya’s ouster is strong.
“I am not here because I favor a coup,” said Paola Rodríguez, 28, as she choked back tears while waiting to vote. “I’m here because I favor democracy.”
She cast her ballot for Lobo, because she distrusted his wealthy opponent, Santos.
Rodríguez’s sister, Erika, cast her vote for Santos, a construction-company executive who is a member of the Liberal Party.
“I don’t even care who wins,” Erika Rodríguez said. “This is the first time you are going to see all Hondurans celebrating — anybody’s victory.”
The sisters underscore a polarized society, split on whether Zelaya’s June 28 ouster amounted to a coup — and divided on who should steer the country out of the international condemnation and domestic turmoil it finds itself in.
They agreed on only this: The solution was at the polls.
“All eyes are on our country,” said Guido Ferrari, 67, after casting his vote at a school in a working-class neighborhood called Kennedy. “It’s not something Hondurans take lightly.”
World leaders have condemned the Central American nation ever since Zelaya was shuttled out of bed at gunpoint. Honduras’ interim President Roberto Micheletti has said the country’s actions were justified, because Zelaya violated laws when pushing for an illegal referendum that many feared would let him change the constitution to run for reelection.
“The majority of the people understood that you cannot have democratic and transparent elections under a coup-installed government,” said resistance leader Rafael Alegria. “This process is illegitimate and illegal.”
Human-rights activist Bertha Oliva said her organization, COFADEH, documented some 20 or 30 detentions nationwide. One resistance member headed out on the street with a megaphone and was arrested, leaders said at a news conference Sunday afternoon.
Another group that supports Zelaya reported that the military searched its offices Saturday, confiscating computers and other gear.
“Why should I vote if the last one I voted for was run out of the country?” said cab driver Braudilio Germán. “They didn’t respect my last vote, and I’m mad.”
But many said they would defy the calls for a boycott and cast ballots to save Honduran democracy — and its reputation.
“This was one election I was not going to miss,” said Xenia Lagos, 30, who had skipped out on previous elections. “I want my country to return back to normal, if voting for a new president is the fastest way to do that, then I’ll happily wait in line to vote.”
More than 300 international observers — including a group of Cuban exiles from Miami— took to the streets to sniff out electoral foul play. Honduras previously relied on the support of the Organization of American States to provide observers, but the group suspended Honduras, insisting on Zelaya’s reinstatement.
“These were orderly, transparent, clean elections,” said former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. “There was not a single incident in the eight-hour tour I took through the electoral posts I had to observe.”
He said he even saw residents help the military search voters who showed up with heavy bags.
Congress will decide Wednesday whether Zelaya can finish his term.
“Whatever congress decides does not matter as much as what the people have decided,” said Kemel Julián Ordoñez, 74, after casting his vote in the neighborhood of La Fuenta. “By us casting our vote today, the Honduran people have decided we want to move forward.”
El Nuevo Herald reporter Casto Ocando contributed to this report.