Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa
Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa

Honduras’s rival contenders for the presidency – a pro-military candidate from the ruling party and the wife of a leftist leader ousted in a 2009 coup – have both claimed victory in a close-run poll, setting the stage for a messy and drawn-out fight.

Preliminary official results reported by local media put Juan Orlando Hernández comfortably ahead of Xiomara Castro, who is vying to become the first female president of the Central American state riven by drug and gang violence.

“Thanks, my God, and thanks to the Honduran people for this triumph,” tweeted Mr Hernández. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal put him ahead with 34.15 per cent of the vote with 43 per cent of ballots counted, according to local media, though the tally on the tribunal’s website showed less complete results.

In turn, Ms Castro tweeted: “With the nationwide exit poll results I have seen, I can tell you: I am the president of Honduras.” In the preliminary tally, she was trailing Mr Hernández on 28.45 per cent.

David Matamoros, president of Honduras’ electoral court, told the AP news agency that final results were not expected until early Monday.

“The preliminary results we have given so far do not show any tendency or declare any winner,” he said on Sunday night.

There is no run-off vote, meaning that no matter how slight the margin, the winner will take the helm of a country which analysts say is teetering on the brink of becoming a “narcostate”, with a mounting economic crisis and where the US estimates 90 per cent of drug flights from South America land before their cargoes head north.

Porfirio Lobo, the outgoing president, has called on candidates to accept the result of the ballot since Honduras already had “enormous problems”.

A contested election result could spark a political crisis instead of marking an orderly transition to a new government in the country of 8m people. Radio Globo reported officials from Ms Castro’s Libre party asserting that the initial results were skewed in favour of the ruling National Party and vowing to “defend our triumph in the streets”. Some pro-Castro sympathisers had already taken to the streets to celebrate in some parts of Honduras, local media reported.

Ms Castro, who says she is her own woman and not a puppet of her husband, nonetheless voted with him at her side. As well as promising “democratic socialism” for Honduras, she is pushing for community policing instead of gun-toting soldiers on streets to wrest back control of vast swaths of local government and neighbourhoods that have fallen to organised crime and gangs.

Mr Hernández, who staged a late surge in the election race, has championed the formation of a new military police force and would be likely to push for continued militarisation to deal with the country’s violence spiral.

There were allegations of polling stations running out of material and other irregularities but no immediate reports from observers of rigging on a large scale.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate – a national average of some 85 per 100,000, though in some parts of the country the rate is nearly 130, well beyond the standard definition of a homicide epidemic. Furthermore, thousands of police are themselves engaged in criminal activity, analysts and rights groups say.

Honduras also has rampant economic problems.

Both Mr Hernández and Ms Castro advocate doing a deal with the International Monetary Fund after a $200m facility expired earlier this year and no new one has been agreed. But that could come with unpalatable strings attached. Honduras’s debt is forecast this year at some 41 per cent of GDP, while growth is below 3 per cent and a devastating coffee blight has hurt the key cash crop.

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