A left-right coalition led by a flamboyant TV host took a surprise lead in the Honduran presidential election, initial results showed on Monday, upsetting forecasts that the crime-fighting, U.S.-allied incumbent would comfortably win.
With 57 percent of ballot boxes counted, Salvador Nasralla was ahead with an almost 5 point margin at 45 percent, according to the first official results, released nearly 10 hours after voting ended.
“I am the new president-elect of Honduras,” Nasralla, 64, wrote on Twitter after the results were announced. Earlier, he and President Juan Orlando Hernandez had held competing events claiming victory during the long wait.
Nasralla, who helms the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, had 45.17 percent of the vote, while the National Party’s Hernandez had 40.21 percent, according to the country’s election tribunal.
A victory for Nasralla would be a blow for the United States, which sees Hernandez as a reliable ally in tackling drug trafficking, gangs and migration. The United States has longstanding military ties to Honduras and few ideological allies among the current crop of Central American presidents.
The attempt by Hernandez to clinch a second term was divisive in the poor Central American country.
Honduras is still trying to overcome the after effects of a 2009 coup that ensued when former President Manuel Zelaya, an ally of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, proposed a referendum on lifting term limits.
Zelaya was at Nasralla’s side on Monday morning. As coordinator and, many believe, the true power in the Alliance, Zelaya would be a major beneficiary if Nasralla wins.
Zelaya was ditched amid fears he was plotting to adopt socialist policies in Honduras, a country where a conservative business class wields enormous power. The United States wrestled with how to handle the coup, and Zelaya remains a bogeyman for U.S. officials and many of Honduras’ elite.
“We won,” Zelaya wrote on Twitter.
The son of a wealthy landowner, Zelaya nearly returned to political prominence in the 2013 election, when his wife, Xiomara Castro, lost out to Hernandez. With his big black mustache and penchant for cowboy hats, he is a larger than life personality who splits opinion.
Several members of the country’s business elite told Reuters that Zelaya’s reputation for being a rabble rouser was ill-founded and out of date. Instead, they said, he was simply opportunistic, adding that the United States disliked him for being “chaotic” and untrustworthy.
Nasralla, on the other hand, is one of the country’s best known faces as the host of game shows featuring scantily-clad women by his side. With his booming voice and finely coiffed hair, he looked poised to be the latest entertainment star in the Americas to breach the upper echelons of political power.
Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Nasralla’s bid resonated with voters tired of two-party dominance.
Polls, including one released after voting ended on Sunday, had shown Hernandez likely to easily win a second term that would have made him the first president re-elected since Honduras shed military rule nearly four decades ago. The bid was made possible by a contentious 2015 decision by the Supreme Court.
After the results were announced, Hernandez delivered a brief statement, reiterating that he had won, and urging supporters to wait for fresh results to come in from rural areas, where he enjoys greater support.