Honduras set for first female president as Castro holds wide lead




HONDURAS-Former Honduran first lady and leftist opposition candidate Xiomara Castro appears set to become the country's first female president, a result that would put the left back in power 12 years after her husband was overthrown in a coup.

With more than half the votes counted, Castro had at least 53 percent support and held a commanding lead of almost 20 percentage points over the ruling National Party's Nasry Asfura, according to a live count from Honduras's National Electoral Council (CNE) on Monday.

Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was deposed from the presidency in a 2009 coup backed by business and military elites, claimed victory late on Sunday, even as the CNE said no result would be announced until the last vote is counted.

With more than 1.8 million votes counted, Castro held a margin of at least 350,000 votes. Despite warnings from the CNE to wait for official results, major Honduran news outlets have called the race as a victory for Castro, 62.

The council said voter turnout was at more than 68 percent.

Jubilant celebrations broke out at Castro's campaign headquarters as the vote count progressed and her lead held, with supporters chanting "JOH out" in reference to two-term President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party.

Hernandez is deeply unpopular and has been implicated in a drug trafficking case in a United States federal court. He denies wrongdoing, but could face an indictment when he leaves office.

"I believe firmly that the democratic socialism I propose is the solution to pull Honduras out of the abyss we have been buried in by neoliberalism, a narco-dictator and corruption," Castro said in a campaign speech.

Castro, who would be the Central American nation's first female president, has promised big changes, including a constitutional overhaul, United Nations support in the fight against corruption, and looser abortion restrictions.

She has also floated the idea of dropping diplomatic support for Taiwan in favour of China, a policy proposal keenly watched in Washington, Beijing and Taipei.

Business leaders quickly offered congratulations and Castro promised to work "hand in hand" with the private sector. "We're going to form a government of reconciliation, a government of peace and justice," Castro added.

However, critics have sought to paint her as a dangerous radical, recalling Zelaya's closeness to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In her speech, Castro promised to strengthen direct democracy by holding referendums on key policies. Elsewhere in Latin America, that tool has sometimes in fact strengthened presidential power.

The election took place against a backdrop of deep socioeconomic problems and poverty exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which helped push record numbers of Hondurans to leave for the US.

Al Jazeera's Manuel Rapalo, reporting from the capital Tegucigalpa on Monday, said leftist leaders from across Latin America have been sending Castro messages of congratulations on social media, even though final results have yet to be announced.

"There a number of reasons why this has the potential to be an historic election for Honduras," said Rapalo, pointing among other things to voter turnout, which was at its highest since the country returned to democratic rule in the 1980s.

"Many people feel hungry for change after 12 years of single-party rule," Rapalo said. "Many people see the ruling National Party as being endemically corrupt, leading to worsening poverty in the country."

Honduras has been hit hard by gang violence, drug trafficking and hurricanes, with 59 percent of the country's 10 million people living in poverty.

"We've tried this government for 12 years and things have gone from bad to worse," Luis Gomez, 26, told the AFP news agency in the gang-ridden Tegucigalpa neighbourhood of La Sosa. "We hope for something new."

Castro, who sought the presidency twice before, seized on the unpopularity of outgoing Hernandez, while the National Party's candidate Asfura was at pains to keep his distance from the president during the election campaign.

Asfura was accused in 2020 of embezzling $700,000 in public money, and the so-called Pandora Papers linked him to influence-peddling in Costa Rica.

The third major candidate in the presidential race, the Liberal Party's Yani Rosenthal, spent three years in a US jail for money laundering. He scored just nine percent, according to early election results. He has reportedly conceded to Castro, Al Jazeera's Rapalo said Monday.

Asfura urged voters to show patience in a social media post, but stopped short of conceding.

The fate of Honduras's 128-member Congress also remained in the air with no results published on Monday. If the National Party keeps control, it could complicate things for a Castro administration.(mr/aje)

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