Leftist opposition candidate Xiomara Castro raced to an early lead in the Honduran presidential election on Sunday, partial election results showed, putting her in pole position to become the first female leader of the Central American country.
With over 27% of the vote counted, Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, had 53.7% support, while Nasry Asfura, candidate of the ruling National Party had 33.8%, the national electoral council said.
Victory for Castro would end a dozen years of conservative rule, and return the Honduran left to power for the first time since Zelaya was deposed in a 2009 coup.
Castro supporters hailed early results as proof of triumph.
Still, both the National Party and her Liberty and Refoundation (Libre) party had claimed victory after a day of voting that had seen an historic turnout, the electoral council said.
Castro has sought to unify opposition to outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has denied accusations of having ties to powerful gangs, despite an open investigation in the United States linking him to alleged drug trafficking.
After allying with the 2017 runner-up, a popular TV host, most polls had reinforced her front-runner status.
"We can't stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship," said Castro, mobbed by reporters just after voting in the town of Catacamas.
The candidate said she trusted that voters would report any problems they see and that international observers would also help to ensure a fair vote.
The election is the latest political flashpoint in Central America, a major source of U.S.-bound migrants fleeing chronic unemployment and gang violence. Honduras is among the world's most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.
Central America is also a key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns have grown over increasingly authoritarian governments.
The vote also has prompted diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with U.S.-backed Taiwan.
Castro's main rival among 13 presidential hopefuls on the ballot is the National Party's Asfura, a wealthy businessman and two-term mayor of the capital, who has tried to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent.
After casting his ballot, a measured Asfura said he would respect voters' verdict.
"Whatever the Honduran people want in the end, I will respect that," he said.
Some voters consulted by Reuters expressed dissatisfaction with their choices, but many others had clear favorites.
"I'm against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking," said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who said he was voting for Castro.
'This is Honduras'
Hernandez's disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, looms large. Widespread reports of irregularities provoked protests claiming the lives of over two dozen people, but he rode out the fraud claims and calls for a re-vote.
Alexa Sanchez, a 22-year-old medical student, lounged on a bench just after voting while listening to music on her headphones and said she reluctantly voted for Castro.
"Honestly, it's not like there were such good options," she said, adding she was highly skeptical of clean vote.
"I don't think so," she said. "This is Honduras."
Numerous national and international election observers monitored Sunday's voting, including the European Union's 68-member mission.
Zeljana Zovko, the chief EU observer, told reporters around midday that her team mostly saw calm voting with high turnout, although most polling stations they visited opened late.
"The campaign has been very hard," said Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist and former dean of Honduras' National Autonomous University, noting that Castro has "generated big expectations."
Castellanos said post-election violence is possible if the race is especially close, if many complaints are lodged and give rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud, or if candidates declare themselves victorious prematurely.
Alongside the presidency, voters are also deciding the composition of the country's 128-member Congress, plus officials for some 300 local governments.
In Tegucigalpa's working-class Kennedy neighborhood, 56-year-old accountant Jose, who declined to give his surname, said he would stick with the ruling party.
"I have hope Tito Asfura can change everything," he said, using the mayor's nickname.
"Look, here the corruption is in all the governments."