Honduras Election Front-Runner Vows New Era but Is Tied to Past

MEXICO CITY — The Honduras opposition candidate, Xiomara Castro, inched closer to an astounding presidential victory on Monday morning, promising a new era of democratic inclusion in a nation where despair has driven hundreds of thousands to the U.S. border seeking refuge in recent years.

Ms. Castro, 62, held a 20 percentage point lead over the candidate of the incumbent National Party with 51 percent of the ballot boxes counted. The results of the Sunday vote appeared to show a stunning repudiation of the National Party’s 12-year rule, which was shaped by pervasive corruption, dismantling of democratic institutions and accusations of links with drug cartels.

Thousands of Hondurans poured into the streets to celebrate what they believed was Ms. Castro’s insurmountable lead, shooting fireworks and singing “JOH, JOH, and away you go,” in reference to the initials of the deeply unpopular outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández.

Many voiced hopes that, should she prevail, Ms. Castro would be able to cure the chronic ills that have mired the country in poverty and desperation for decades: widespread graft, violence, organized crime and mass migration. They also remained wary of the National Party attempting to commit electoral fraud in the results that remained uncounted, given that the party’s leaders may face corruption or even drug trafficking charges after leaving office.

“We will recover Honduras, because we are now governed by criminals,” said Mariela Sandres, a student, who celebrated outside Ms. Castro’s campaign headquarters on Sunday night.

Ms. Castro in some ways represents a break with Honduras’s traditional politics. Her commanding lead, in what has been a largely peaceful election so far, also appeared to present a democratic reprieve from a wave of authoritarianism sweeping Central America.

If the current returns stand, she will become the first female president in a deeply conservative nation, and its first leader to be democratically elected on a socialist platform.

She has promised to rebuild the country’s weakened democracy and bring in all sectors of Honduran society to overhaul a state that has served the interests of a small group of elites since it was a Spanish colony centuries ago. In a speech on Sunday night, Ms. Castro told supporters that she would immediately begin talks with political allies and opponents alike to form a government of national unity.

“Never again will the power be abused in this country,” she said.

Ms. Castro said she would consider legalizing abortion in limited cases and would bring back international corruption investigators who were forced out by Mr. Hernández after they had started examining suspected graft in his inner circle.

Yet, Ms. Castro is also deeply tied to Honduras’ political establishment. And her ability to meet her campaign promises is likely to be severely challenged by opposition from the more conservative sectors in congress and within her own political coalition.

At her election rallies, Ms. Castro capitalized on Hondurans’ widespread repudiation of Mr. Hernández’s rule. But she has been vague about what her own government would do, beyond repealing the most unpopular measures of the current government.

Ms. Castro candidacy has been shaped by her marriage to Mel Zelaya, a wealthy Honduran landowner and former president who was deposed in a military coup in 2009 after having tried to emulate the policies of Venezuela’s president at the time, Hugo Chávez.

Mr. Zelaya, who remains a polarizing figure in Honduras, is the founder and the head of Ms. Castro’s political party and has served as her campaign manager. Should her victory be confirmed, he is widely expected to play a prominent role in the government led by Ms. Castro, who had been living mostly outside Honduras since the coup.

Joan Suazo in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed reporting.

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