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Honduras Tense as Voters Head to Polls

Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Mexico City – Uncertainty has defined the mood in Honduras since its president Manuel Zelaya was arrested and deposed on June 28 – with the condemnation of much of the world but solid support from many Hondurans.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Mexico City – Uncertainty has defined the mood in Honduras since its president Manuel Zelaya was arrested and deposed on June 28 – with the condemnation of much of the world but solid support from many Hondurans.

Presidential elections scheduled today have been widely viewed here as a potential way out of Latin America’s worst political crisis in decades. But as polls open, resolution feels as far off as ever – with calls for boycotts from Honduran voters, warnings that elections will not be recognized from countries abroad, and the fate of Mr. Zelaya anything but clear.

“Elections may sweep the political crisis under the rug, but it won’t resolve it,” says Iliana Guandique, a school teacher in Tegucigalpa who says she plans to boycott the vote today.

Some 4.6 million Hondurans are eligible to cast ballots in a race that has conservative candidate Porfirio Lobo of the National Party in the lead, trailed by Elvin Santos, who belongs to the Liberal Party of both Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, who took over the presidency after Zelaya was sent in military plane to Costa Rica June 28.

Both candidates supported Zelaya’s ouster for allegedly pushing forward with constitutional change to end presidential term limits. Zelaya, who snuck back into Honduras in September and sought refuge at the Brazilian embassy, where he still remains today, denies the charge.

Zelaya Supporters Boycott

Zelaya’s supporters have called for a boycott of elections. Juan Barahona, a protest leader who has taken to the streets over the past five months, says he will stay indoors today. “We’ve told people to stay at home and not to vote,” he says.

Ms. Guandique says she is heeding the call – both in protest of Zelaya’s ouster and because she fears repression by military and police. “I won’t vote because there’s no security,” she says.

Nor is there evidence, she adds, that her vote will make a difference. Guandique voted for Zelaya in the 2005 elections, but she says the leading candidates backed his ouster and only represent the interests of the rich. “The only crime Zelaya committed was helping the poor,” she says.

Tight Security in Place

The Honduran military has emphasized that voters should not be worried about security, army spokesman Col. Ramiro Archaga said ahead of polls. “We have plans in places to deal with people who try to interrupt the elections,” including 17,000 soldiers and 12,000 police officers called to duty nationwide. He said authorities will respect the rights of those in favor of Zelaya.

Many residents expect calm, too. Dominga Lopez, a house cleaner in the capital, attended the final rally of Mr. Lobo earlier in the week. She says she will vote for Lobo because he supports senior citizens’ rights and hails from a different party than that of Zelaya, who she accuses of seeking dictatorial powers. “We’ll elect a good government, one that represents everybody.”

Pelix Lopez, a farm worker also at the Lobo rally, says he expects a big turnout for this year’s race, pointing to thousands at the rally. “They came here because they’re not afraid,” Mr. Lopez says.

But in some pockets of the capital the mood was tense. Amnesty International expressed concerns on Friday that the government may resort to excessive force to quell any perceived disturbances during polls. Human rights groups have decried violations, including arbitrary detainments and several deaths during street protests over the past five months.

Raul Mendoza, a Tegucigalpa resident, says he believes a strong police and military presence will deter any major violence, but tensions in the past five months could spark an accident. The Organization of American States (OAS) is not sending observers this year.

“I’ll be scared when I go [to vote], but I’ll go,” Mr. Mendoza says.

Mr. Archaga said 5,000 reserve soldiers called to monitor elections will go back to their normal duties once all ballots have been cast and the final results made official. But stability seems far off, even after a winner is announced.

US to Recognize the Vote

The US, which helped mediate a deal that eventually broke down between Micheletti and Zelaya, has indicated that it will recognize the vote, backing down from an earlier demand that Zelaya must be restored if elections are to be recognized.

Now Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who drew up the original deal, joined that position “If the elections are transparent, there are no accusations of fraud, the observers find there was nothing incorrect, I am going to ask Ibero-American countries to recognize the future Honduran government,” the leader said in a statement.

But other countries in the region refuse to budge, including Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said Thursday, according to Reuters, that recognition of elections would legitimate a coup.

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