Honduran voters choosing a president Sunday were deciding between a former leftist-turned-conservative who promises to wipe out violent crime with the death penalty and a rival who vows to eliminate widespread government corruption.
A national exit poll showed candidate Manuel Zelaya, of the opposition Liberal Party, ahead by 6 percentage points, and a top election official said that the voting appeared to be in favor of Zelaya.
Supporters of Zelaya and hard-line conservative Porfirio Lobo Sosa, of the ruling National Party, drove through Tegucigalpa, honking their horns, their cars sporting blue-and-white flags for the National Party and red-and-white banners for the Liberal Party.
The country's nearly 4 million voters also were electing a vice president, 128 congressional representatives, 298 mayors and 2,000 city councilors. Sunday's vote is the seventh consecutive democratic election of this Central American nation since 1981, when it abandoned more than two decades of military rule.
A national exit poll released by Honduran television stations HRN and Channel 5 showed that Zelaya had won 50.6 percent of the voted, compared to 44.3 percent for Lobo Sosa. The survey was based on interviews with 120,000 voters and was conducted in conjunction with the private firm Management Engineering.
Aristides Mejia, president of Honduras' national election institute, said officials were awaiting additional results before releasing any numbers, but added that "the clear tendency is in favor of Zelaya."
The balloting took place under the eyes of more than 16,000 soldiers and police officers, as well as 6,000 local observers and 114 election monitors from 14 countries.
Election officials reported delays in the arrival of election materials and allegations from both main parties of interference at polling places. But in most places, voting took place without incident.
"We've matured as a democracy," said physician Octavio Vazquez Rodriguez, 69, who described voting as "peaceful" at one of the polling places, at the country's national university. "Before, people used to come here and pull your hair or fight with you," he added.
Zelaya declared himself the winner a little more than an hour after polls closed _ before any official results were available. His supporters flooded into the streets of the capital waving the Liberal Party's flag, flashing their car lights and blowing their horns.
In an interview with local media, Lobo Sosa said, "We have results that don't coincide with those of the Liberal Party. ... It is a close race and it will be a long night of counting votes."
Widely reported to have studied in a communist school in the former Soviet Union, Lobo Sosa is now a hard-line conservative. As congressional president he helped current President Ricardo Maduro push through laws to criminalize gang membership. Maduro is not allowed by law to run for re-election.
Lobo Sosa said that if elected, he will institute the death penalty for "abominable crimes" including sexual assault, kidnapping and murder. He says many of those crimes are committed by gangs.
Zelaya, a former congressman and bank director, insists the shortest road to prosperity for a country with a 70 percent poverty rate is to eliminate corruption, which he claims is rife in the National Party-ruled government and the private sector.
Zelaya has proposed several measures he says will empower Hondurans, including a transparency law and a civil assembly to monitor the government. He also promises to support life imprisonment for hard core criminals, including gang members.
Honduran law does not allow life imprisonment, though judges have imposed sentences of up to 60 years for grave crimes.
Both Lobo Sosa and Zelaya are wealthy agricultural landowners who support a free-trade agreement with the United States. Each has also pledged to develop tourism, increase access to education, expand agricultural production and support small businesses.
Laura Pavon, a 25-year-old government worker from Tegucigalpa who voted at the university, said she supported Lobo Sosa because "he is going to bring more jobs and security to eliminate the gangs."
"The gangs go around terrorizing everybody, killing indiscriminately," she said.
But Tegucigalpa businesswoman Sara Lucy Arita, 58, said the only worthy candidate was Zelaya "because the Liberal Party represents the dispossessed."
"We need a change," she said. "We need to get rid of the corruption."
Three other candidates from smaller parties also are running for president, but they are not expected to win more than a combined 2 percent of the vote. The winner will assume office on Jan. 27 for a term of four years, AP reported. V.A.