- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras | Defying a boycott plea by deposed President Manuel Zelaya, Hondurans flocked to the polls in unexpectedly large numbers Sunday to hand a convincing victory to Porfirio Pepe Lobo Sosa of the opposition National Party.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) at 9:20 p.m. EST gave Mr. Lobo, 61, 315,963 votes (52.7 percent to 206,707 (34.4 percent) for Elvin Santos, 46, of Mr. Zelaya’s Liberal Party.

In the 2005 election, Mr. Lobo narrowly lost to Mr. Zelaya, 49.9 percent to 46.4 percent. The turnout then was 55.4 percent. On Sunday, the TSE predicted that the turnout would exceed 60 percent of the 4.6 million registered voters and perhaps reach 70 percent, which is seen as a rebuke of Mr. Zelaya’s attempt to deprive the newly elected president of legitimacy through a boycott.

Although a liberal, Mr. Santos supported the forcible ouster of Mr. Zelaya on June 28. He was Mr. Zelaya’s vice president before resigning to run for president last year.

Mr. Zelaya sneaked back into the country and has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy here since Sept. 21.

There were isolated reports of voter intimidation, according to an election observer from the U.S. Embassy at a polling station in the capital who said he could not be quoted by name. He said that pro-Zelaya students prevented two universities from being used as voting stations but that voters were being directed elsewhere.

“We’re not here to give our blessing or not to give our blessing,” he said. “We’re just here to report what we see to the people who want to know.”

Scores of people were lined up at each voting table; most voting stations had several tables, but only two cardboard voting booths each. Voters cast paper ballots, then had their right little fingers marked with indelible ink to prevent repeat voting. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m. local time.

Tallying did not begin until 7 p.m. to allow voting by people in line when the polls closed.

“Everything is completely tranquil,” said Maria del Rocio Cerdas Quesada, an international observer with the College of Lawyers in Costa Rica, after monitoring polling places in Tegucigalpa. “There are lots of people, people who are happy to vote and express their faith in democracy.”

Polling places were guarded by police in riot gear and in some cases army soldiers with U.S.-made AR-16 assault rifles.

Honduras has been in crisis since the military deposed Mr. Zelaya. Both major parties say he was seeking to force a constituent assembly to allow himself to remain in office beyond the expiration of his term, on Jan. 27. Both the National Congress and the Supreme Court voted against Mr. Zelaya’s plan to hold a referendum on the constituent assembly, but he was proceeding with plans to hold it the day he was overthrown.

The Congress named another liberal, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president. The split in the Liberal Party between pro- and anti-Zelaya factions had hurt Mr. Santos candidacy.

At a news conference Friday, Mr. Lobo urged citizens to vote to resolve the crisis.

“There’s no other way out,” he said. “We have to look ahead. This is a situation that nobody wanted to happen, so what we have to look at is how to get out of this without causing the crisis to deepen.”

“These troublemakers are just one in 1,000,” said Juan Manuel Zelaya, a news editor with Radio CHN who emphasized that he is not related to the deposed president. “They wanted to turn Honduras over to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez. Hondurans don’t want that. We want a Honduras that is free and independent.”

Besides polarizing the Honduran people, the ouster of Mr. Zelaya has divided Latin America. Most countries allied with Mr. Chavez are refusing to recognize the Micheletti government or the results of Sundays election.

Mr. Chavez called the election a farce. Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Guatemala have indicated that they would not recognize the winner. Nicaragua and El Salvador closed their borders with Honduras in the past few days. The Guatemalan Supreme Court blocked President Alvaro Coloms attempt to do the same.

The Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo reported that Mr. Zelaya will now seek asylum in Nicaragua.

President Obama, whose policy was initially to oppose Mr. Zelaya’s overthrow and who attempted to broker a deal to reinstate him, changed course and is calling for recognition of the election results as a means to start from zero to resolve the crisis.

Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru are the only Latin American countries that have heeded Mr. Obamas call; the rest, notably Mexico and Chile, remain fence-sitters. Mr. Zelaya, the radio editor, said the elections would prove only a palliative, adding, a lot depends on whether European countries like Germany, Italy and Sweden decide to recognize the election.

Voters also elected the 128-member National Congress and more than 2,700 municipal officials.

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