Honduran opposition protesters clash with police in growing election crisis

A soldier kicks a tear gas canister during a clash with supporters of Salvador Nasralla, presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, as they wait for official presidential election results in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Honduran police fired tear gas at rock-hurling protesters on Thursday after a widely criticized presidential election that has still to produce a clear winner stretched into its fourth day of vote counting.

Both center-right President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his rival Salvador Nasralla, a television game show host allied with leftists, claimed victory after Sunday’s election. The vote tally at first favored Nasralla, but then swung in favor of the incumbent after hold-ups in the count, fueling talk of irregularities.

International concern has grown about the crisis in the poor Central American nation of more than 9 million, which experienced a military-backed coup in 2009 and suffers from drug gangs and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

The delays have already led to violence, and observers fear they could risk undermining the eventual winner’s legitimacy.
One of the four magistrates on the Honduran electoral tribunal flagged serious doubts about the process on Thursday.

Marcos Ramiro Lobo called for an independent external auditor to review the results, but was non-committal on whether there was evidence of electoral fraud.

“We can’t be sure of one thing or the other,” Lobo said, expressing concern about the vote count breaking down. “What I do know is that serious doubts are being raised.”

David Matamoros, who chairs the electoral tribunal, said he expected the count to conclude by mid-afternoon, but hopes of an announcement on Thursday began to evaporate as the tally updated at a glacial pace with over 7 percent of the ballots uncounted.

The tribunal’s latest tally showed that with 92.72 percent of ballots counted, Hernandez had secured 42.93 percent of the vote, with Nasralla on 41.42 percent.

The Organization of American States (OAS) appeared to have salvaged the credibility of the election on Wednesday by eliciting signed statements from both candidates that vowed to respect the final result once disputed votes had been checked.

But a few hours later, Nasralla rejected the accord, saying his opponents were trying to rob him. He urged supporters to take to the streets to defend his triumph.

“They take us for idiots and want to steal our victory,” said Nasralla, who heads a left-right coalition.

Nasralla is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was ousted in the 2009 coup after he proposed a referendum on his re-election.

On Thursday, Nasralla’s coalition issued a statement signed by Zelaya. Zelaya asked for more transparency in the vote count, and said the coalition could not currently accept any decision issued by the tribunal.

Luis Larach, the president of COHEP, a business lobby, said about 5 percent of the vote tally will need to be closely examined because of irregularities, which could take a few days and be crucial in deciding the winner.

“For me, it’s still up in the air,” he said.

Nasralla’s followers heeded his call, with protests throughout Honduras on Thursday. At least two protesters and a policewoman and a soldier were injured in the capital, Tegucigalpa, with one of the protesters shot in the leg, emergency services said.

There were also reports of highway toll booths set alight in other parts of Honduras.

“We’re going to keep protesting and won’t let them steal this victory,” said university student Josue Valladares as he battled with security forces, who were guarding a vote-count center in Tegucigalpa.

The sporadic way in which results have been published, and the reversal of Nasralla’s lead, have led the opposition to say Hernandez may have influenced the election tribunal, an allegation Hernandez denies. Opinion polls before the election indicated that Hernandez was favored to win.

On Thursday, the OAS urged the tribunal to process all of the ballots before declaring a winner, as did a European Union election monitor.

On Monday, the tribunal published more than half the results, showing Nasralla with a five point lead, but then published nothing more for 36 hours.

When the count started again, Hernandez began to catch Nasralla. The count has started and stopped ever since. The tribunal blamed a five-hour delay on Wednesday on computer glitches.

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