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The Miami Herald

Critics Dismiss Honduran Election -- Even Before First Vote Has Been Cast

Many view Honduras' presidential election as the only way out of a political crisis; others say the vote will legitimize the coup that caused the crisis.

Fances Robles

Supporters of National Party presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo hold up posters and a cutout of him during a rally marking the close of his election campaign in Tegucigalpa November 23, 2009. Presidential elections will be held in Honduras on November 29, 2009. (REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)

TEGUCIGALPA -- While unemployment and crime are high and schools are at a standstill, Hondurans' focus when they go to the polls Sunday will be on settling a crippling political crisis that has consumed the Central American country since June.

Whoever wins the presidency inherits a political mess not of his making and will be forced to cut deals and heal wounds -- or risk four years of instability and international condemnation.

But even as the campaigns officially close Tuesday, critics both in Honduras and abroad are condemning the election and promising legal challenges. The question remains: If Honduras has an election few countries recognize, does it count?

``If we don't go to elections, what alternative do we have?'' said leading candidate Porfirio ``Pepe'' Lobo.

``This has been a very, very difficult process,'' he told reporters. ``Now they want to deny us this right? There's no way. Nobody is going to stop the people's right to vote.''

Lobo is a 61-year-old former rancher and president of Congress who is widely expected to win the election. A longtime politician of the traditional National Party, he ran for president in 2005 and lost.

But this time around, CID Gallup polls show Lobo 15 points ahead of his closest contender, construction company executive Elvin Santos.

Lobo shot up in the polls thanks to a June 28 coup that ripped a schism into Honduran society and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile.

``Lobo was more conservative and was trailing,'' said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., research center. ``Then the coup happens, Santos seemed opposed to finding a compromise solution with Zelaya, and that made Pepe the favorite.''

Zelaya was a leftist former rancher who alienated the powerful elite by insisting on a referendum that could have led to a new constitution. Congress, the Supreme Court and even Zelaya's own party viewed the move as a slick intent to stay in power. When Zelaya defied court orders to stop the plebiscite, the Supreme Court ordered his arrest.

The military broke into Zelaya's house the morning of June 28 and sent the pajama-clad president to Costa Rica. Zelaya's vice president -- Elvin Santos -- had resigned to run for president, so the next in line was Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress.

For five months, both Micheletti and Zelaya have claimed the presidency -- Micheletti from the presidential palace and Zelaya from the Brazilian Embassy, where he took refuge in September.

Elections to choose a successor already were scheduled and the candidates long selected. But now many critics say the race would be fruit of a poisoned tree, because polling is being orchestrated by an illegal and de facto regime.

``Can they convince the world that it was OK for a small group of people to overthrow the president, arrest thousands of people, beat the hell out of them, close media intermittently, hold an election -- and then judge the election solely on how clean it was on the day of the polling?'' said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.


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``The rest of Latin America sees this as legitimizing the coup itself.''

Already, Brazil and Argentina issued joint statements last week saying the election results will be invalid.

In late October, Micheletti and Zelaya briefly agreed on an accord that would have created a national unity government. The two sides could not agree on who would head it, so Zelaya did not offer candidates to serve in the government and pulled out of the deal.

But shortly after the accord was struck, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said Washington would recognize the election. His declaration caused an uproar in Honduras, where Zelaya supporters argue that once Washington agreed to respect the election results, Zelaya lost any chance of ever being reinstated.

Zelaya's supporters -- dubbed the ``Resistance'' -- have called for an election boycott, and their candidate withdrew from the race.

On Saturday, the interim government issued executive orders declaring a national state of emergency for the elections and calling up 5,000 military reservists.

``The message from the Resistance is for no one to vote,'' said union leader and protest organizer Juan Barahona.

``We don't want anyone casting a ballot for any candidate. Voting here is mandatory, but there's always a lot of absenteeism. This time, there will be much more.''

The Honduran Congress will vote Dec. 2 on whether to allow Zelaya to finish his term.

Zelaya already is vowing to challenge the election results. He blames Washington.

Santos has said he isn't interested in international validation.

But experts say Santos' anti-Zelaya stance divided his party -- the reason he is not likely to win.

``Honduras should not fear pressure from the international community for our elections to be recognized,'' he said in a videotaped interview with Guatemala's Prensa Libre newspaper. ``We are demanding respect. We are defending democracy in our nation.''

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