|Catholic observers say Honduran presidential election went smoothly|
Catholic News Service photo
A man casts his ballot at a school in Catacamas, Honduras, Nov. 24. Hondurans voted for a new president in a country reeling from violence, poverty and the legacy of a 2009 coup. The candidate of the ruling conservative party, Juan Hernandez, took the l ead in early vote counting.
Catholic News ServiceMEXICO CITY — Electoral officials in Honduras said the governing party's candidate in the country's presidential election holds an irreversible lead, dashing the hopes of an upstart party fronted by the wife of ex-President Manuel Zelaya, the man ousted in a 2009 coup.
The coup plunged the impoverished Central American country into political chaos and divided the Catholic Church.
However, church leaders this year -- most notably Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, whose post-coup comments angered some Zelaya supporters -- steered clear of controversy and stayed silent on issues pertaining to parties and candidates in the lead up to the Nov. 24 election.
Still, some in the church expressed satisfaction with the process, although Xiomara Castro, Zelaya's wife running under the new left-leaning Libre Party, alleged fraud. She had not conceded the contest Nov. 26.
"We had a relatively high rate of participation ... in a quiet climate, with very few incidents of violence," said Father German Calix, country director of Caritas Honduras.
Juan Hernandez of the conservative National Party, running on an agenda of restoring order in an oft-violent country, claimed 34.1 percent of the vote, with slightly more than two-thirds of the ballots counted late Nov. 25, Reuters reported. That was better than the 28.9 percent claimed by Castro, who said exit polls put her ahead.
Six other candidates split the rest of the vote.
The race comes as Honduras confronts issues of poverty, corruption and violence so serious that criminal gangs collect extortion payments from ordinary people. It has the world's highest murder rate with more than 20 killings a day. Drug cartels use the country as a transit point for moving illegal merchandise between South America and the United States.
"The events of 2009 polarized the country, reduced confidence in government further, fed corruption, and killed investment undercutting economic growth," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
"The cartels have taken full advantage, accelerating Honduras' downward spiral," he said.
Zelaya was removed from power and flown out of the country on the eve of a June 2009 referendum on rewriting the country's constitution, a move his opponents alleged might allow him to remain in power. The then-president and his supporters rejected those charges.
The subsequent violence has caused an outflow of young people, who would prefer plying a risky and perilous path through Central America and Mexico atop northbound trains to the U.S. than be preyed upon by criminals at home, said Juan Sheenan, country director of Catholic Relief Services in Honduras.
Sheenan expressed some skepticism that an Hernandez-led administration could pacify the country by creating a militarized police (as promised in the campaign) or change the status quo.
"He's talking about bringing down the heavy hand, training the military and the police, but we don't know. (Violence) seems to be entrenched in the system," Sheenan said.
The election, Father Calix said, showed a deep disenchantment with democracy in Honduras, where two parties, National and Liberal, traded power for the past 30 years in a staid, two-party system.
"After 30 years of democratic governments and the electioneering involved, this situation hasn't changed because we've dropped below 60 percent (for a poverty rate.) We've always stayed between 60 percent and 80 percent," he said.
Church comments prior to the election focused more on the process than parties or politicians. Cardinal Rodriguez has maintained "a very low profile," and kept his comments more to "pastoral matters" than politics since the 2009 coup, Father Calix said.
The Honduran bishops' conference this year encouraged parishes to carry out classes on the electoral process, which Father Calix said were meant to impart values such as participation, preventing potential electoral fraud and holding candidates accountable for their campaign promises.
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