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Security Dominates Honduras Vote

In this Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 photo, Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro greets supporters during her closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Castro, the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, is a frontrunner in the Nov. 24 presidential election. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

In this Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 photo, Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro greets supporters during her closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Castro, the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, is a frontrunner in the Nov. 24 presidential election. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Tegucigalpa, Honduras — The last thing Honduras needs is a presidential election that’s a draw.

This country already is plagued by drug violence, poverty, corruption and the legacy of a 2009 coup. Now, if polls are accurate, today’s vote could fail to produce a clear winner.

The election pits Xiomara Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military-backed coup, against Juan Orlando Hernandez, the candidate of the ruling conservative National Party.

Polls show the two in a statistical tie, ominous in this failing state with 8.5 million people and the world’s highest homicide rate.

“We’ll accept the results if they’re clean. If they’re not, the people have the right to defend their vote,” said Enrique Reina, Castro’s campaign coordinator. Castro’s party says it has a contingency plan if it suspects fraud, though it won’t say what.

And while Hernandez has vowed to respect the results, analysts say a close vote could bring chaos.

Even if the election is fair and transparent it will be difficult to convince supporters of the losing candidate that it wasn’t stolen, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “You need someone or some people to stand up and be statesmen. And I’m not sure who would do that in the Honduran context, truthfully.”

U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske has called on both candidates to wait for official results to declare victory, a process that could take several days.

The latest poll puts Hernandez at 28 percent and Castro at 27, with 30 percent divided among six other candidates in an election with no runoff. The CID-Gallup poll surveyed 2,000 people in person and had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Castro, 54, had been leading for months as the candidate for change, promising relief from the violence and poverty that have only increased in the four years since President Porfirio Lobo took office.

She is even drawing support from some of the people who deposed her husband, including Adolfo Facusse, a businessman who heads the National Association of Industrialists. His U.S. visa was pulled for his role in the putsch against Zelaya.

“We’re with Xiomara if she opts for the path of the moderate left, like we’ve seen in Nicaragua or El Salvador,” Facusse said, naming two Central American countries run by pro-business leftists. He said Lobo’s conservative National Party has been an “economic disaster” for the private sector.

Hernandez, 45, has seen his numbers surge in recent weeks by casting himself as the candidate of law and order, the top issue for most voters in a country that is overrun by gangs and is the transit point for much of the cocaine headed from South America to the U.S.

Although he is from the ruling party, as president of congress Hernandez has pushed through legislation creating a military police force to patrol the streets in place of the National Police, which are penetrated by corruption and often accused of extrajudicial killings.

The idea is popular among crime-weary Hondurans.

“Military in the streets? Yes, and I hope they stay until the last gang member in the neighborhood is gone,” said Lucia Soto , 32, who sells food in Flor del Campo, south of Tegucigalpa , and must pay an extortion to operate.

The program alarms human rights advocates concerned about potential abuses by the military acting in a civilian role, and the opposition says the presence of troops that supported a coup just four years ago is intimidating during campaigning for an election.

The U.S. State Department says the program undermines efforts to clean up the civilian police, efforts that have failed so far.

About 250 international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Organization of American States will monitor the election. The constitution says the victor needs to win only by one vote. There is no runoff, and the electoral tribunal decides whether a recount is necessary.

Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, was deposed by his own Liberal party after he aligned himself with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was attempting to hold a referendum on whether to reform the constitution, something the Supreme Court called illegal, when he was whisked out of the country at gunpoint. The National Party won regularly scheduled elections later that year.

Four years later, there’s little appetite for a repeat. Still, critics charge that Hernandez’s campaign ads featuring his new military police force send a message that the armed forces won’t let his opponent take power.

Despite the political rhetoric, Hondurans are more focused on pocketbook issues, as the number working on less than minimum wage, $350 a month, has grown from 28 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Many say they have little faith in either candidate to change that.

“No, I don’t vote, I don’t listen, I don’t know, I don’t look,” said Hector Oseguera, 35, who works in a cafe. “I don’t trust any of these people, or what they try to feed me. They’re worse than a cancer on the country.”