TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — If ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya ever feared irrelevance, he has probably never felt it as acutely as now.
In presidential elections Sunday, conservative opposition candidate Porfirio Lobo won the race, according to exit polls. Though there were scattered reports of repression, the day passed without major incident.
Despite calls for boycotts, turnout seemed to be no lower than normal. And although many countries in the region refused to recognize the results, the event – which has been the key negotiating point for the reinstatement of Mr. Zelaya, still holed up in the Brazilian embassy – has come and gone.
Many Hondurans hope this is the beginning of the end of the standoff. Alex Estrada, a local bar owner who voted for Mr. Lobo, says having successful elections without much violence or upheaval today signals a new era for Honduras after five months of political strife. “The crisis no longer exists,” he says.
The Honduran electoral commission had not published official results as of press time, but exit polls by local media showed that Lobo, of the National Party, had captured over half of the votes. With 62 percent of ballots counted, Lobo led with 52 percent, trailed by Elvin Santos of the Liberal Party, who got 36 percent.
Zelaya had called for boycotts, and claimed in a statement that the abstention rate was up to 65 percent. “As president of Honduras I declare this process illegitimate,” he said. But the electoral tribunal says voter turnout was 62 percent.
The new leader of Honduras will face a legitimacy test. The US has suggested it will recognize the new administration, backpedaling from an earlier position demanding the reinstatement of Zelaya first. Costa Rica and Panama have followed, but most countries in the region, including Brazil, have said they will not.
Zelaya – ousted June 28 by the military for pushing for a poll on holding a constitutional assembly despite it being declared illegal – snuck back into the country in September and has languished in the Brazilian embassy ever since.
International pressure centered on refusing to recognize Sunday’s election, but the interim government, led by Roberto Micheletti, pushed forward with the vote. Many Hondurans support that position. Salvador Ochoa, a computer specialist, says this year’s election is the only way to preserve democracy and bring peace back to Honduras. He says the international community should respect the results. “We had no choice but to do what we did,” he says of Zelaya’s ouster.
But Hondurans remain divided. Alfredo Maldonado, a local business owner, said he did not vote. Although he belongs to the same party as Lobo, he says he does not support elections under a de facto government, adding that the issue of Zelaya’s reinstatement should have been dealt with before the elections. “I don’t think the elections will resolve the crisis. What resolves it is carrying out the legal process against Zelaya,” he says.
Juan Barahona, who has led protests in support of Zelaya, had warned that the military could use excessive force during the polls and called on sympathizers not to protest Sunday. But no major incident was reported. In the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, about 500 protestors were tear gassed by soldiers during a peaceful protest, says Tom Loudon of the Quixote Center, a nonprofit organization based near Washington, D.C. He added that people were beaten with clubs and several were arrested. “The crowd just scattered, people went running in every direction, I was one of those,” he says.
Street protests will likely continue as Zelaya remains in the Brazilian embassy. The Honduran Congress is set to vote on his possible reinstatement on Dec. 2. But many Hondurans say that the most important task ahead is national unity.
Roger Perez, a taxi driver, says that he hopes Lobo follows through on his promise to create a national dialogue that will resolve the country’s internal conflicts. “We can’t keep going like this,” Mr. Perez says.