Victory Declared in Controversial Poll That was Already a Win-Win for Honduras's Wealthy Elite

Rancher Porfirio Lobo takes presidential election • While some party, others vow to fight on for Zelaya

Within hours of the polls closing the celebrations began. Cavalcades
of honking cars raced up and down Boulevard Morazan. The Hotel Maya
filled with cheering people in blue T-shirts. The media fell into
paroxysms of delight.

A wealthy rancher named Porfirio Lobo had just won Honduras's
presidential election, heralding a "democratic fiesta". By dawn today
the revellers were heading home, perhaps stopping for breakfast at one
of Tegucigalpa's myriad Pizza Huts, Burger Kings and Wendy's.

is a wonderful day. The country has regained its equilibrium," beamed
Ana Gomez, 29. After days of grey skies even the tropical sunshine

But not everyone was minded to party. Honduras is in
crisis: internationally isolated, shunned by investors and aid
agencies. The president ousted in a June coup, Manuel Zelaya, is
besieged in the Brazilian embassy, the compound ringed by barbed wire,
police and soldiers. "These elections are illegitimate," he said.

governments lined up to condemn the vote as a whitewash. Many Hondurans
boycotted it and vowed "continued resistance". The homeless children
who sleep on rubbish dumps in Tegucigalpa's slums were too hungry or
high on glue to care.

How did it come to this? How did a sleepy
central American backwater known for coffee and Mayan ruins become a
dangerously polarised international pariah?

Miguel Alonzo,
sifting through the debris of his office, had an answer. "We are run by
an oligarchy, that's how." The root of the crisis, he said, was the
fact that an elite made up of little more than 10 families runs
Honduras. "They control the economy and they control politics."

Saturday Alonzo's civic association, Comal, paid the price of backing
Zelaya's boycott campaign. Police and soldiers stormed the office and
carted away computers, cash and documents. They said they were looking
for weapons.

That, and the violent crackdowns on pro-Zelaya
rallies, seemed anachronistic. Latin America had supposedly left
repression behind in the 1980s and embraced progressive democratic

"Honduras is different," Roberto Micheletti, the de
facto president, boasted last week. He was talking about its defiance
of international pressure to restore Zelaya to power, but was right in
other ways. From the late 19th century Honduras was turned into a giant
banana plantation by US fruit corporations. They dominated the economy
and made and broke governments. US marines intervened in Honduras seven
times, between 1900 and 1934. The US supported friendly despots on and
off until 1981, when democracy replaced military rule. Power alternated
between the National and Liberal parties, but an Americanised
conservative elite pulled the strings.

The 10 most powerful
families, many descended from Palestinian and Jewish immigrants,
dominate banking, insurance, manufacturing, telecommunications and
media, including TV and newspapers.

Half the population of 7.6
million still live on less than $2 a day. "Hondurans are not being well
served by their institutions," Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign
Relations thinktank said with understatement. Slums such as Cementerio,
a fetid sprawl of shacks with human scavengers and mangy dogs, resemble
a Hogarth sketch. Armed gangs make it one of the deadliest places in
Latin America.

Unlike the rest of central America, however,
during the cold war no leftist insurgency arose in Honduras, a
placidness which neighbours mocked as doziness.

Zelaya changed
that. Elected in 2005, he was an improbable revolutionary. A wealthy
logger and part of the ruling elite, in 2007 he veered left and
embraced Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez. Mel, as he is
universally known, lowered school fees and raised the minimum wage. The
implementation was clumsy and in some cases backfired, costing jobs,
but the poor embraced Zelaya.

The constitution constrained him:
to avoid lapsing back into authoritarian rule Honduras limited the
executive to one term. It was the "world's worst constitution",
according to Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias. Zelaya tried to
change it by holding a non-binding referendum in June. The elite and
middle class, already alarmed by the president's leftist shift,
revolted. "He was going to perpetuate himself in power, just like
Chavez, we had to stop him," said Romero Alguilera, the owner of a taxi

With the blessing of congress, the supreme court and
Zelaya's own party, masked soldiers seized and exiled him on 28 June.
The world condemned the coup - even the Obama administration, which had
no love for a Chavez ally. Governments withdrew ambassadors, aid was
frozen and investment evaporated. The de facto rulers seemed unaware
that coups were no longer acceptable: the US resisted full-blown
sanctions but cut aid and visas for the elite.

The 10 families,
with Micheletti as their frontman, fought back. They hired Washington
lobbyists to woo Republicans and Democrats. The tactic was to run down
the clock until Sunday's election, intended to cement Zelaya's loss of

The authorities closed pro-Zelaya media and curbed civil
liberties. Security forces snuffed out protests with teargas, clubs and
in some cases live rounds, leaving hundreds injured and several dead.

Zelaya sneaked back into the country in September but failed to rally mass support.

The US initially joined Latin America's condemnation of the June coup and the calls for Zelaya's restoration.

as the crisis dragged on the Obama administration broke diplomatic
ranks and said it would recognise Sunday's election even if Zelaya was
not first returned to power. The U-turn dismayed Brazil and other
leftist governments.

Critics said Zelaya could have been restored
first had the US used its leverage over coup leaders. It did not do so
partly because of Republican lobbying. Senator Jim DeMint, a South
Carolina conservative, blocked state department appointments until the
administration softened its position. The tail wagged the dog, said
some analysts.

The victor

Porfirio Lobo, a wealthy
rancher from the ruling elite, is a veteran congressman and member of
the opposition National party. He lost to Manuel Zelaya, right, in 2005
but bounced back on Sunday to claim 55% of the vote, well ahead of his
nearest rival. Zelaya, who is in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa,
was not on the ballot.

Lobo voted in favour of his predecessor's
removal in June, but distanced himself from the coup and presented
himself as the man who could persuade the international community -
notably Brazil - to recognise the election and restore aid and

"We ask them to see that they are punishing the
people who went to vote, do so every four years and have nothing to do
with what happened on 28 June," he told journalists.

Officials said the turnout was above 60%, but sceptics wondered if it was inflated to bolster the poll's legitimacy.

- which means wolf in Spanish - is known by his nickname, Pepe.
Sixty-one and married three times, he is father to 11 children and
practices tae kwon do. Like Zelaya, he hails from Olancho province,
where men have a reputation for machismo.

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