TEGUCIGALPA - The opposition and the ruling party both claimed victory in Honduras' presidential election on Sunday as strong turnout lifted the leftist contender's hopes of ending a dozen years of conservative National Party rule.
If opposition standard-bearer Xiomara Castro wins, she would become the first female president in Honduras and return the left to power for the first time since her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a 2009 coup.
After polls closed, the ruling party also declared victory for its candidate, Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, while Zelaya did the same for his wife. However, snags at hundreds of voting sites will likely delay results, officials said.
The electoral council said more than 2.7 million voters had already cast ballots, a figure it described in a statement as a "massive turnout" with more votes yet to be counted.
The initial turnout is already up on the 2017 total, said council president Kelvin Aguirre. But nearly 8% of 5,755 polling places were having transmission problems filing vote tallies with electoral authorities, which will delay results.
Aguirre said preliminary results from areas that have come in would be provided around 8 p.m. local time (0200 GMT Monday).
Voters still in line could vote, government officials said, in a contest that saw the National Party struggle to shake off corruption scandals while attacking Castro as a dangerous radical.
Long lines could be seen at many polling places across the capital. Some 5.2 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.
Castro has sought to unify opposition to outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has denied accusations of having ties to powerful gangs, despite an open investigation in the United States linking him to alleged drug trafficking.
After allying with the 2017 runner-up, a popular TV host, most polls have reinforced her front-runner status.
"We can't stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship," said Castro, mobbed by reporters just after voting in the town of Catacamas.
The candidate said she trusted that voters would report any problems they see and that international observers would also help to ensure a fair vote.
The election is the latest political flashpoint in Central America, a major source of U.S.-bound migrants fleeing chronic unemployment and gang violence. Honduras is among the world's most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.
Central America is also key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns have grown over increasingly authoritarian governments.
The vote also has prompted diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with U.S.-backed Taiwan.
Castro's main rival among 13 presidential hopefuls on the ballot is the National Party's Asfura, a wealthy businessman and two-term mayor of the capital, who has tried to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent.
After casting his ballot, a measured Asfura said he would respect voters' verdict.
"Whatever the Honduran people want in the end, I will respect that," he said.
Some voters consulted by Reuters expressed dissatisfaction with their choices, but many others had clear favorites.
"I'm against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking," said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who said he would vote for Castro.
'THIS IS HONDURAS'
Hernandez's disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, looms large. Widespread reports of irregularities provoked protests claiming the lives of over two dozen people, but he rode out the fraud claims and calls for a re-vote.
Alexa Sanchez, a 22-year-old medical student, lounged on a bench just after voting while listening to music on her headphones and said she reluctantly voted for Castro.
"Honestly, it's not like there were such good options," she said, adding she was highly skeptical of clean vote.
"I don't think so," she said. "This is Honduras."
Numerous national and international election observers monitored Sunday's voting, including the European Union's 68-member mission.
Zeljana Zovko, the chief EU observer, told reporters around midday that her team mostly saw calm voting with high turnout, although most polling stations they visited opened late.
"The campaign has been very hard," said Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist and former dean of Honduras' National Autonomous University, noting that Castro has "generated big expectations."
Castellanos said post-election violence is possible if the race is especially close, if a large number of complaints are lodged and give rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud, or if candidates declare themselves victorious prematurely.
Alongside the presidency, voters are also deciding the composition of the country's 128-member Congress, plus officials for some 300 local governments.
In Tegucigalpa's working-class Kennedy neighborhood, 56-year-old accountant Jose, who declined to give his surname, said he would stick with the ruling party.
"I have hope Tito Asfura can change everything," he said, using the mayor's nickname.
"Look, here the corruption is in all the governments."