By Mica Rosenberg
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Honduras chooses a new president on Sunday in an election that may defuse a crisis caused by a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, but the vote is splitting Washington and Latin America.
Neither Zelaya nor arch-rival Roberto Micheletti, the country’s de facto leader, are running in the election, which could give a new president the chance to take Honduras beyond the political gridlock that has divided the Central American nation and cut off international aid.
“We see the running of these elections — assuming that they’re run in a fair and transparent way — we see them as an essential part of the solution of this crisis,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said this week.
Leftist Zelaya was ousted by the army in June and replaced by Micheletti who has blocked attempts backed by the United States, Latin America and Europe to have the president reinstated.
Zelaya — now holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa — and his supporters argue that recognizing the elections would essentially give the coup leaders victory. Zelaya is urging the vote be rescheduled.
Latin American powers like Argentina and Brazil also say an election organized by Micheletti’s de facto government is not valid, possibly putting them at odds with Washington which looks likely to recognize the vote.
The Organization of American States and the independent Carter Center are not sending observer missions. Human rights groups fear there could be violence.
The two leading candidates, from Honduras’ traditional ruling elite, have skillfully avoided much talk of the crisis in their election campaigns and hope Honduras will be welcomed back into the international fold after the vote.
Some analysts say under this scenario Zelaya would fade from the headlines.
Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the conservative opposition National Party, has emerged as the frontrunner in the election, scheduled before the June 28 coup.
In an October poll by CID-Gallup, Lobo was 16 points ahead of his closest rival, Elvin Santos from Zelaya and Micheletti’s Liberal Party.
A wealthy landowner who lost the 2005 election to Zelaya, Lobo is seen backing investment-friendly policies if he wins.
“Today begins the turning of a new page in Honduran history. We should leave behind differences and unite together to look forward,” Lobo said at a closing rally in the capital this week jazzed up by thumping music and dancing girls.
Many Hondurans are tired of the crisis and want to move on.
“(Micheletti and Zelaya) caused this problem and the people are the ones suffering … The vote is our only way out of this,” said engineer Hector Guzman, 48, at the Lobo rally.
International lenders slashed aid to the poor coffee- and textile-exporting country and the Organization of American States suspended Honduras to punish the coup leaders.
Honduras’ Supreme Court said on Wednesday in a non-binding opinion that Zelaya cannot legally return to office, dimming the possibility of his reinstatement, court sources said.
When in power, Zelaya crossed Congress, the Supreme Court and the military with a bid to change the constitution. Critics say he wanted new rules to stay in power, but he denies this.
Security forces have repeatedly cracked down on anti-coup protests, causing several deaths, and some observers say a fair vote is impossible after Micheletti temporarily shut down pro-Zelaya news channels.
When soldiers rousted Zelaya from his bed at dawn and sent him to Costa Rica on a military plane, it conjured up memories of Central America’s dark Cold War past when military leaders often backed by the United States overthrew democratic governments.
Zelaya told Reuters this week it would be undemocratic if the United States ended up backing the result of an election held by a post-coup government, since coup leaders supported the vote from day one.
“The U.S. position … has divided the Americas and is creating a grave precedent,” Zelaya said.
Micheletti and his supporters accuse Zelaya of getting too close to Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez.
But the rancher and logging magnate is an unlikely working-class hero who some say did little to systematically improve the lot of Honduras’ poor while in power.