TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS —
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a conservative U.S. ally, appeared likely to win a second term on Sunday despite opposition claims that his re-election is an unconstitutional power grab.
Hernandez's popularity is based largely on a drop in violence in the impoverished Central American country, whose homicide rate was once among the world's worst. Honduras' National Autonomous University says the rate has dropped to 59 homicides per 100,000 from a dizzying high of 91.6 in 2011.
But corruption and drug trafficking allegations have cast a shadow over his government, and his re-election bid has fueled charges that his conservative National Party has trampled the country's institutions in a bid to entrench itself in power.
Fears of just that sort of consolidation - but by a leftist rival allied with Venezuela - led Hernandez's party to back a military coup in 2009 against a president it accused of plotting to violate Honduras' seemingly iron-clad constitutional ban on re-election.
The country's highest court backed the 2009 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. But the current court is packed with Hernandez' supporters and it ruled in 2015 that the constitutional ban was inferior to a citizen's right to seek re-election, a decision that infuriated opposition leaders.
"Here in Honduras there is no democracy; there is a dictatorship," Zelaya told The Associated Press late Saturday. "The hypocrisy of the Honduran elite is evident ... the people will have to decide at the ballot box." Now a leader of the main opposition alliance, he warned of possible irregularities in the vote.
Hernandez has used the military to help crack down on crime since taking office four years ago, and his campaign website boasts of praise from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has lauded Hernandez "for his leadership in addressing security and governance challenges."
The president also has reached out to evangelical Christians and warned that his rivals would carry Honduras toward a Venezuelan-style crisis - alluding to the fact Zelaya had been backed by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"God our Lord is with us, and we would not do anything without his divine protection," Hernandez said in a final campaign video posted on his Facebook page.
"We will take a step forward to confront those who seek chaos and those who, allied with foreign forces, try to drag us to a system that has brought only pain and suffering to other societies," he added.
The 15th of 17 children, Hernandez was born in a small, mountain city in western Honduras. He attended a military school, studied law at the national university and says he obtained a master's degree in public administration from the State University of New York. He was the head of Congress before winning the presidency in 2013 elections.
In addition to people in Honduras, tens of thousands of Hondurans were eligible to cast ballots in seven U.S. cities: Atlanta, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Washington.
Sunday's general elections are the tenth in Honduras since the country returned to democracy in 1980 after almost two decades of military regimes.
The leftist Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship is running television host Salvador Nasralla, while the traditional Liberal Party is running Luis Zelaya, a middle-of-the-road candidate. There are another six candidates from tiny opposition parties, but the president remains the clear front-runner.
One issue that could hurt Hernandez is the perception of corruption.
A convicted drug trafficker testified in a New York courtroom this year that he met with Hernandez' brother Antonio to get the Central American country's government to pay its debts to a company that the trafficker's cartel used to launder money.
Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, ex-leader of the cartel known the Cachiros, testified that Antonio Hernandez asked him for a bribe in exchange for government contracts. The brother has denied that allegation.
And in September, the son of a former president from Hernandez's party, Porfirio Lobo was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison after revealing his role in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy. Fabio Lobo, 46, pleaded guilty in May 2016, admitting he worked with drug traffickers and Honduran police to ship cocaine into the United States.