TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduran police fired tear gas at rock-hurling protesters on Thursday after a contentious presidential election that looks set to drag on for two more days without a clear winner, deepening the political crisis in the Central American nation.
Both centre-right President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his rival Salvador Nasralla, a television game show host allied with leftists, claimed victory after Sunday’s election.
The vote tally at first favoured Nasralla, but then swung in favour of the incumbent after hold-ups in the count, fuelling talk of irregularities.
International concern has grown about the crisis in the poor coffee-producing nation of more than 9 million, which experienced a military-backed coup in 2009 and suffers from drug gangs and one of the world’s highest murder rates.
The delays have already led to violence, and observers fear they could risk undermining the eventual winner’s legitimacy.
One of the four magistrates on the Honduran electoral tribunal flagged “serious doubts” about the process on Thursday.
Marcos Ramiro Lobo called for an independent external auditor to review the results, but was non-committal on whether there was evidence of electoral fraud.
“We can’t be sure of one thing or the other,” Lobo told Reuters, expressing concern about the vote count breaking down. “What I do know is that serious doubts are being raised.”
David Matamoros, who chairs the electoral tribunal, on Thursday evening heeded calls from international election observers and Honduras’ top business group, and said the tribunal would hand-count some 1,031 outstanding ballots, or roughly 6 percent of the total, that had irregularities.
That fresh count would be completed in up to two days, and would allow the tribunal to declare a definitive winner with 100 percent of ballots counted, Matamoros said.
The tribunal’s latest tally showed that with 94.31 percent of ballots counted, Hernandez had secured 42.92 percent of the vote, with Nasralla at 41.42 percent.
The Organization of American States (OAS) appeared to have salvaged the credibility of the election on Wednesday by eliciting signed statements from both candidates who vowed to respect the final result once disputed votes had been checked.
But a few hours later, Nasralla rejected the accord, saying his opponents were trying to rob him. He urged supporters to take to the streets to defend his triumph.
“They take us for idiots and want to steal our victory,” said Nasralla, who heads a centre-left coalition.
Nasralla is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was ousted in the 2009 coup after he proposed a referendum on his re-election.
On Thursday, Nasralla’s coalition issued a statement signed by Zelaya, in which the former president asked for more transparency in the vote count, and said the coalition could not currently accept any decision issued by the tribunal.
Luis Larach, the president of COHEP, a powerful business lobby, told Reuters that given the slim difference between the candidates, the hand-count of irregular ballots would be crucial in deciding the winner.
“For me, it’s still up in the air,” he said.
Nasralla’s followers took to the streets, protesting throughout Honduras on Thursday. At least nine people were injured in protests in the capital, Tegucigalpa, as well as two police officers and a soldier, emergency services said. Six of the nine had been shot.
There were also reports of a police station and highway toll booths set alight in other parts of Honduras.
“We’re going to keep protesting and won’t let them steal this victory,” said university student Josue Valladares, 20, as he battled with security forces, who were guarding a vote-count centre in Tegucigalpa.
The sporadic way in which results have been published, and the reversal of Nasralla’s lead, have led the opposition to say Hernandez may have influenced the election tribunal, an allegation Hernandez denies. Opinion polls before the election indicated that Hernandez was favoured to win.
On Thursday, the OAS urged the tribunal to process all of the ballots before declaring a winner, as did a European Union election monitor.
On Monday, the tribunal published more than half the results, showing Nasralla with a five point lead, but then published nothing more for 36 hours.
When the count started again, Hernandez began to catch Nasralla. The count has started and stopped ever since. The tribunal blamed a five-hour delay on Wednesday on computer glitches.
Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien, Grant McCool and Michael Perry