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After Political Turmoil, Hondurans Back Conservative Candidate

November 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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After months of tensions following the ousting of Honduras' top leader, the country elected a new president on Sunday. Margaret Warner reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the Central American nation of Honduras, after months of a bitter standoff, a presidential election has finally taken place.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The streets of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, were calm today, as Hondurans took in early results from Sunday’s presidential vote. Election officials announced that Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, a conservative rancher, had a strong lead, with more than 55 percent.

Lobo began celebrating shortly after the polls closed.

PORFIRIO “PEPE” LOBO: Four years ago, I didn’t win myself, but four years go by quickly. And here we are today. Today, we start a new era in the history of Honduras. Change begins today.

MARGARET WARNER: Though the Organization of American States did not send monitors to observe, Lobo called the election the cleanest in the history of the country.

Honduran officials said more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, and newspaper headlines called the turnout massive. But ousted President Manuel Zelaya disputed the claim. He was forced into exile last June, in what the U.S. and others branded a coup.

Zelaya spoke Sunday from the Brazilian Embassy, where he’s been holed up since returning to Honduras in September,

MANUEL ZELAYA, president, Honduras: I declare this process illegal and illegitimate as president of Honduras. It doesn’t represent the sovereign rights of Hondurans and should be annulled and redone under a legal system.

MARGARET WARNER: Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and other neighbors also condemned the vote as illegitimate, but Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica endorsed it.

In Washington, a top State Department official, Arturo Valenzuela, called the vote an important step forward, but he said it should not be the end of the process.

ARTURO VALENZUELA, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, U.S.: For the countries of the hemisphere and for the United States to work towards the restoration of Honduras to the Organization of American States later on, Honduras must do more than just simply the selection. They must follow a process of national reconciliation. And that’s what we’re urging the Honduran leadership to engage in. The people of Honduras want nothing less.

MARGARET WARNER: Valenzuela urged the Hondurans to try again to create a unity government to oversee the country until January 27. That’s the day the new president takes office.

Late this afternoon, I spoke with Marcelo Ballve of New America Media, who has been covering the election.

Marcelo, welcome. What was the scene like yesterday at the polling places you visited?

'Robust' turnout

MARCELO BALLVE: Well there was a robust turnout at many of the polls I visited.

There were even people, like a 98-year-old great-grandmother, who was voting at the polls, a handicapped person that was carried in on piggyback. And, so, in many of the wealthy and middle-class districts of Tegucigalpa, there was a very heavy turnout.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in the poorer neighborhoods, where the ousted president's support is strongest, was there a noticeable difference?

MARCELO BALLVE: There was. There was a noticeable difference.

There was about 30 percent turnout at one of the polling stations I visited. This was in one of the very poor hillside neighborhoods, where there were rutted dirt roads. And they said that, you know, there was a little bit of intimidation going around in that neighborhood about people who voted fearing reprisals.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what did people who did vote and people who didn't vote tell you about why, why they chose to participate or not?

MARCELO BALLVE: Well, those -- those who did vote said they were voting for peace in Honduras, they were voting for an end to the chaos that engulfed this country ever since the president was ousted.

Those who didn't vote, like one person I spoke to who said that the 11 brothers and sisters that he had, had always voted for one of the traditional parties here, said that they didn't vote because they didn't think the vote was legitimate, that, because it was held under atypical conditions, they didn't think they wanted to endorse the process with their vote.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now we still have this standoff or stalemate. Zelaya, first of all, what are -- what is his game plan? What do he and his supporters say?

MARCELO BALLVE: Well, his -- his latest move has been to say that, even if the congress reinstates him on December 2, he plans not to stand by that decision and not to assume the presidency, if that's what happens. He says that he's not going to whitewash this vote by agreeing to be reinstated, if that's what the congress decides.

MARGARET WARNER: And we should point out that, under the terms of the agreement under which he originally returned, the negotiated agreement, he was supposed to be able to join a short-term interim government, is that right, until late January, if congress approved it?

MARCELO BALLVE: That's right. That was the plan. Under the agreement, if the congress decides to reinstate Zelaya, he would serve out the remainder of his term, which runs until January 27, until the winner assumes power.

MARGARET WARNER: But, effectively, of course, without much power.

MARCELO BALLVE: Well, that -- I mean, that's right.

He would be part of a unity government. He would be crippled politically, obviously, but -- by everything that's happened. And he would watched very closely by the international community.

Lobo striking conciliatory tone

MARGARET WARNER: Now, does the man who has been elected, or almost been elected -- I guess the results aren't totally official yet -- what has he said about this impasse?

MARCELO BALLVE: Well, he's tried to -- he's tried to strike a conciliatory tone.

He said that he should speak to Zelaya, he should speak to all sides in the crisis, that the idea of a unity government is a good one. Although, in the past, he has said that he doesn't think Zelaya should be back in a office, lately, he's tried to seem more conciliatory.

And he's even said that perhaps a deal could be worked out, so that, if Zelaya does leave the Brazilian Embassy, where he's been refuged for so long, that perhaps he won't face arrest or any sort of threat from the interim government.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the State Department very strongly called on all the parties to work together, cooperate, come up with some resolution.

Have you heard anything about whether talks are under way in any direct sense between the antagonists here?

MARCELO BALLVE: I think the talks have been indirect between brokers of the accord. There is a sense that the -- the negotiations are still under threat. Everything has been a little bit unpredictable here in Honduras ever since the events of June 28. So, the intrigue -- intrigue continues.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the -- the -- Lobo, what do he and his supporters say about whether they're concerned that, for the longer term, a lot of -- a number of major Latin American countries have not recognized this election and the Organization of American States hasn't either?

MARCELO BALLVE: They are troubled by that.

Lobo has said that he's going to reach out to all the Latin American countries that have said that they will not recognize the election. But he has also said that, in all truth, the relationship that really matters for Honduras is the relationship with the United States. And he's trying to highlight the United States' nod to this election, saying that it's an important step in the overall reconciliatory process to bring Hondurans together.

MARGARET WARNER: And, economically, certainly, the U.S. is the most important player or partner for the -- for Honduras.

MARCELO BALLVE: By far. Honduras sends a wide majority of its exports to the United States. Its immigrants in the United States send a huge number of remittances back. The Honduran economy is very dependent on the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Marcelo Ballve, thank you so much.

MARCELO BALLVE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find out more about the new Honduran president at our Web site. That's newshour.pbs.org.