Honduras set for first female president as leftist Castro heads for victory

By Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro was headed for a landslide win as presidential election results rolled in on Monday, and looked set to put the left back in power 12 years after her husband was ousted in a coup.

Castro https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/sundays-election-xiomara-castro-could-end-two-party-rule-honduras-2021-11-25, who would be the Central American nation’s first female president, has promised big changes in Honduras 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 favor of China, a policy proposal keenly watched in Washington, Beijing and Taipei.

With just over half the ballots counted, Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, held a nearly 20-point lead over conservative Nasry Asfura, the capital’s mayor and candidate for the ruling National Party, who won 34% according to a preliminary tally.

Jubilant celebrations broke out at Castro’s campaign headquarters as the vote count progressed and her lead held up, 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 U.S. federal court. He denies wrongdoing, but could face an indictment when he leaves office.

“We have turned back authoritarianism,” Castro told supporters late on Sunday, surrounded by her Libre Party faithful, aides and family, including her husband Zelaya, who was ousted when business and military elites allied against him, ushering in a dozen years of National Party rule.

Zelaya was also implicated by a witness in a U.S. court of having taken a drug bribe. He denied the accusation.

A self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where the left has rarely been popular and few women hold public office, Castro has won support of Hondurans tired of corruption and the concentration of power that after the National Party won office in the wake of Zelaya’s 2009 ouster.

Results for the election initially rolled in quickly, a contrast to four years ago when a close outcome led to a contested result and deadly protests after widespread allegations of cheating.

The National Party campaign offices were deserted overnight.

“PEACE AND JUSTICE”

If she delivers on campaign pledges, Castro could begin to reverse a weakening of the Honduran justice system that has benefited corrupt and criminal groups, a trend seen across Central America in recent years.

Her manifesto states that she will enlist help from the United Nations to build an agency to tackle impunity, while also creating more independence for prosecutors.

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 painted her as a dangerous radical, recalling Zelaya’s closeness to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

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

A planned referendum by Zelaya on constitutional reform including allowing a president to be re-elected for a second term was a catalyst for the coup against him, with elites uncomfortable about his alliance with Chavez.

Despite such resistance to re-election, a top court packed with current President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s allies later changed the constitution to allow him a second term.

Early on Monday, Castro thanked Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Twitter for a message congratulating her.

The election took place against a backdrop of poverty exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, adding to anger fueled by scandals that helped pushed record numbers of migrants to leave for the United States.

Castro, who sought the presidency twice earlier including a short 2017 run before she stood down to back another candidate, seized on the unpopularity of outgoing Hernandez.

The National Party’s candidate Asfura was at pains to keep his distance from the president during the election campaign.

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

The fate of Honduras’ 128-member Congress remained in the air with no results published. If the National Party keeps control, it could complicate life for a Castro administration.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, William Maclean, Daniel Flynn and Marguerita Choy)

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