By David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Leftist opposition candidate Xiomara Castro declared victory in Sunday's Honduran presidential election, with early results giving her a commanding lead and putting her on track to become the first female leader of the Central American country.
With 40% of votes counted, Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, had 53.5%, while Nasry Asfura, candidate of the ruling National Party had 34%, preliminary results from the national electoral council showed.
Castro, 62, was competing in a field of more than a dozen candidates, and supporters hailed a triumph that would end a dozen years of conservative rule and return the left to power for the first time since Zelaya was deposed in a 2009 coup.
In a brief victory address, Castro vowed to form a government of "reconciliation," and to strengthen direct democracy with referendums - a tool that Mexico's leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has repeatedly employed.
"There will be no more abuse of power in this country," said Castro, dressed in a red jacket and flanked by the 2017 presidential runner-up, popular TV host Salvador Nasralla, who joined her slate as a candidate for vice president.
Results appeared to be heading to a far clearer result than in the previous election, when irregularities in the vote count sparked deadly protests and led to incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez controversially securing a second term.
After polls closed, National Party officials quickly claimed victory after what the electoral council described as an historic turnout. Still, Asfura himself earlier pledged to honor voters' verdict when casting his ballot.
Castro, the opinion polls leader since tying up with Nasralla in October, sought to unify opposition to 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.
"We can't stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship," Castro said just after voting in the town of Catacamas, mobbed by reporters.
She urged voters to report any problems they saw and said international observers https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/honduras-parties-flag-fears-fraud-ahead-pivotal-vote-2021-11-27 would help to ensure a fair vote.
Asfura, a wealthy businessman https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/honduran-ruling-party-hopeful-asfura-faces-uphill-climb-2021-11-26 and two-term mayor of the capital, had tried in the campaign to distance himself from Hernandez and the controversies engulfing him.
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 have eased.
Central America is also key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns have also grown over increasingly authoritarian governments.
The vote 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.
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 was voting for Castro.
'THIS IS HONDURAS'
Hernandez's disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, loomed 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."
National and international election observers monitored 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 ended up close, if a large number of complaints were lodged and gave rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud.
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."
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Stephen Coates)