The Honduran presidential elections, less than seven weeks away, would seem to offer a clear way out of the political labyrinth the country has been stuck in since mid-summer. But in Honduras these days, nothing is that simple.
Interim President Roberto Micheletti certainly wants the Nov. 29 vote to go off successfully with the international community's approval. If that happens, he has said, Hondurans will finally be able to put months of uncertainty and divisiveness behind them.
"I ask you from the bottom of my heart, please don't be spiteful and withhold recognition of our elections," begged Micheletti last week, addressing a delegation from the Organization of American States, in Honduras to jump-start negotiations.
The elections were scheduled long before a June 28 military-backed coup forced out President Manuel Zelaya and upended Honduran politics. Already, six candidates are vigorously campaigning, and blitzing local TV channels with advertisements.
Honduras's two traditional political parties are pulling out the stops to promote their candidates, despite the distractions posed by the Zelaya-Micheletti dispute.
The Liberal Party candidate, Elvin Santos, calls himself the "employment candidate" in his ads. In another Santos TV spot, his wife, aspiring first lady Becky de Santos, speaks earnestly about her concern for Honduras's poor, which makes up 70 percent of the population. Micheletti and Zelaya both belong to the Liberal Party.
The leading candidate, Porfirio Lobo, of the National Party, appears in a competing ad in which he promises to push micro-financing to help women entrepreneurs.
However, a successful election is unlikely unless Micheletti and Zelaya first reach a deal in the OAS-supervised negotiations. In late September, the U.S. State Department said it would recognize the Honduran vote only if the sides reached an agreement.
The negotiations took as their starting point the proposed San Jose Accord drafted by Costa Rican President and Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias. The accord's central demand is Zelaya's reinstatement.
To keep the pressure on Micheletti while the negotiations inch along, pro-Zelaya protesters, who call themselves "la resistencia," gather in the streets everyday. They accuse Micheletti's negotiators of foot-dragging in order to bring Honduras to the brink of elections without agreeing to Zelaya's reinstatement.
"They're playing at buying time," said Juan Barahona, union leader and one of Zelaya's three negotiators. But, he added, the country's extreme polarization means "the conditions just aren't there for elections."
Zelaya's supporters vow to boycott the Nov. 29 vote unless Zelaya is back in the Casa Presidencial.
At protest rallies, pro-Zelaya protesters urge one another to sabotage elections by "cleaning up" election flyers and signs. The idea is to show the interim government it won't be easy to push elections through without a broader political agreement.
"Elections? No!" was the chant heard again and again at a protest rally Monday at John F. Kennedy Square in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Zelaya supporters from around the country converged on the rally, which doubled as a strategic show-and-tell session.
"If you see election posters or flyers pasted up in your town or neighborhood, go out at night, companeros, and tear them down," said Nora Rios, a 40-year-old social worker from Divina Providencia, a two-hour drive north of Tegucigalpa.
She spoke into a microphone next to a sound van mounted with a cluster of megaphones.
Micheletti "believes that if the elections take place, everything will go back to normal," said Jovanis Salgado, a 37-year-old truck driver and union representative. "I don't think so, the world won't recognize them" unless there's a deal.
The Honduran political crisis escalated rapidly in late September after Zelaya snuck back into the country to rally his supporters. He ended up seeking refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.
The crisis was sparked by Zelaya's attempt to push through a referendum on whether Hondurans wanted to elect a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution.
Zelaya said he only wanted to gauge Hondurans' sentiments, but the courts and legislature accused him of wanting to lift term limits.
The talks between Micheletti and Zelaya negotiators will resume Tuesday at a downtown hotel, after a three-day pause for a long holiday weekend.
The pro-Zelaya camp has imposed an Oct. 15 deadline for his reinstatement. Rafael Alegria, leader of the Via Campesina farm-workers' group, said there would be street and highway protests, and maybe a general strike, if the deadline wasn't met.
Before the weekend pause, Vilma Morales, a prominent jurist and one of Micheletti's negotiators, said she was "very optimistic" about the negotiations' progress. She urged Hondurans to put aside their differences and "clothe themselves in patriotism," in preparation for a looming political reconciliation.
Barahona, Zelaya's negotiator, was less optimistic. He said the two sides agreed on the concept of a "national unity" government to replace Micheletti, but had not yet discussed the main point of contention: Zelaya's return to office.
"That's the fundamental point," he said in a hotel lobby, his frayed white baseball cap with Che Guevara's image pulled low over his eyes. "If there's no progress on that, then what use are all the rest of the demands?"
Some 60 percent of the points had been agreed on, Barahona said, but he compared the talks so far to a labor negotiation in which the union reps ask for toilet paper in workplace bathrooms, but tiptoe around the more important issue of higher wages. "I'm still pessimistic," he said.
Editor's Note: Reporting from Honduras is a partnership between the NewsHour and New America Media.
-- By Marcelo Ballve for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer