TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Hondurans voted Sunday for a successor to deeply unpopular President Juan Orlando Hernández in elections that could oust his National Party after 12 years in power.
The candidate most likely to do this is Xiomara Castro of the leftist Liberty and Re-foundation party. The former first lady is making her third bid for the presidency and is the only one of 13 opposition candidates with a chance to beat Hernández's handpicked successor, Nasry Asfura, a folksy Tegucigalpa mayor.
Such is the level of mistrust among Hondurans in the electoral process that many fear there could be disturbances in the streets no matter who wins.
Julio Cesar Nieto, a 62-year-old retiree from the judicial system, said he hoped the political parties would act responsibly and recognize a winner to avoid the violence that occurred following elections four years ago.
"Everyone is looking for a change," Nieto said after casting his ballot at an elementary school in the capital's El Bosque neighborhood. The polling site opened to voters more than hour after it was scheduled to.
Despite the late start, voting appeared orderly. Poll workers checked IDs, scanned fingerprints and took photos of voters. Ballots were marked, deposited in clear plastic boxes - for president, for members of congress, for local races - and voters' pinkies were stained with ink.
Luis Guillermo Solis, Costa Rica's former president and leader of the observation mission of the Organization of American States, said late Sunday morning that preliminary reports had started arriving from their observers and things seemed normal.
"We have been in various (voting) centers already and we are seeing more or less the same, long lines of people exercising their civic right," he said.
Sandra Castillo voted Sunday at the National Pedagogic University in a middle-class Tegucigalpa neighborhood. She said she voted for change, not necessarily of party, but a change of people in power, so "they don't keep governing the same way."
Honduras' elected leaders have affected businesses and investment in the way they've governed, said Castillo, who works in administration in the judicial system. Statistics like unemployment make the country's struggles undeniable, she said.
And yet she didn't hear clear plans for how to address those problems in any of the candidates' campaigns.
"I didn't see real proposals for what they're going to do, how they're going to do it," Castillo said. "The speeches were a bit empty of plans."
Asfura voted at the same location later in the morning. He called for peace and respect for the voting process.
Asked about his opponents, Asfura demurred. "I don't say opposition, they are my friends," said the long-time Tegucigalpa mayor. "Today all of us politicians must demonstrate a civic act for Honduras."
Castro voted earlier in the day near Catacamas, in east-central Honduras. She too called on her supporters to not be provoked into calling the elections invalid.
"Honduras can't endure four more years," Castro said. "We have to stop these caravans of Honduran men and women who are leaving our country en masse because of the insecurity, the lack of opportunities, the lack of work, the lack of health, the lack of education."
After a protracted contest filled with irregularities in 2017, protesters filled the streets and the government imposed a curfew. Three weeks later Hernández was declared the winner despite the Organization of American States observation mission calling for an election re-do. At least 23 people were killed.
This time businesses along major thoroughfares in the capital are taking no chances. Workers mounted sheets of plywood over their many of their windows on Saturday.
More than 5.1 million Hondurans are registered to vote at nearly 6,000 polling sites across the country. In addition to a new president, they will choose a new congress, new representatives to the Central American Parliament and a bevy of local races.
Experts say it will come down to whether those dissatisfied with National Party rule will turn out in sufficient numbers to overcome the incumbent's potent electoral machinery. Hondurans have reported receiving phone calls from the National Party in recent days offering an assortment of payments or other government benefits and reminding them to vote. Some calls offered to arrange transportation to polling sites.
In a world hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Honduras can count that as just one of the crises that have ravaged it in recent years. Last year, the country also suffered the devastating effects of two major hurricanes. Unemployment was 10.9% last year as the economy shrank 9%. Powerful street gangs continue to terrorize Hondurans, driving, along with economic factors, tens of thousands of Hondurans to emigrate.
Corruption is carried out with such impunity that Hondurans have turned their hopes to U.S. federal prosecutors in New York. They won a life sentence for Hernández's brother, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, for drug trafficking, and have accused the president of fueling his political rise with drug proceeds, though they have not charged him. Juan Orlando Hernández has denied any wrongdoing.
So the ground would appear favorable for Castro, but there are doubts about how much real change she would bring. Her husband, Jose Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the military in a coup in 2009. U.S. prosecutors have tied him too to bribes from drug traffickers, which he also denies.
In the mountainside El Bosque neighborhood, people began lining up 30 minutes before the polls were scheduled to open at an elementary school. Bundled in sweatshirts and windbreakers, they shifted from foot to foot trying to keep warm against a gusting wind.
Evelyn Flores, a 49-year-old secretary in a government agency, had a more jaded view, but felt compelled to do her civic responsibility nonetheless.
"They all disappoint," Flores said of politicians. "They promise and don't fulfill."
Flores' life has not improved in recent years. If she got a small raise, the cost of basic necessities increased too.
"We need someone to lift up this country because there's a lot of poverty, a lot of deficiencies," she said.
Alberto Vazquez, a construction worker, voiced support for the incumbent National Party, but saw little likelihood of positive change. "No matter who wins, that is not going to help us because the economic situation is not going to change," he said. "The one who wins is the one who is going to enjoy his power and prestige, we are going to remain as we are."
AP journalists Fernanda Pesce in Tegucigalpa and Elmer Martínez in Catacamas contributed to this report.