TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The conservative ruling party candidate claimed victory in Honduras' presidential election on Sunday as a partial vote count put him ahead, but his leftist rival also said she was the winner, setting the stage for possible conflict.
The electoral authority said a partial count of votes gave National Party candidate Juan Hernandez some 34.3 percent support while Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed former leader Manuel Zelaya, had almost 28.7 percent.
The preliminary tally was based on a count from 54.5 percent of polling booths. The electoral authority said it would give its next update after midday on Monday.
A Hernandez victory would deal a blow to Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup that plunged Honduras into a political crisis. He had hoped to stage a comeback behind Castro.
Hernandez posted a photograph on Twitter of himself and supporters praying on their knees. "Thanks to my God, and thanks to the people of Honduras for this triumph," he wrote.
It was raining in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and there were few signs of celebrations in a city where years of rampant violence have deterred many from venturing out at night.
Hernandez, who is the head of Congress, has vowed a tough militarized response to drug gang violence fueling the world's highest murder rate, while Castro is seeking a shift to the left that could revive her husband's political career.
"Juan (Hernandez) will be a good president, he's a decisive and tenacious man and knows what to do," said Vera Molina, 53, a housewife. "He will provide a solution for the security problems and lack of work, I believe in him completely."
The U.S. ambassador to Honduras and the head of European Union election observers said that the voting process was clean and urged the participants to respect the results.
Nevertheless, Castro's party said it would not accept the results and would take legal action against them.
Hernandez and Castro offer distinct visions for Honduras, the biggest coffee exporter in Central America.
The economy is struggling in a country already saddled with the world's worst annual murder rate - over 85 per 100,000 people - and how to tame gangs was a key focus of the campaign.
"I don't go out anywhere at night because here they'll kill you for a cellphone," Antonlin Castro, 59, an electrician in Tegucigalpa, said before voting ended. "Corruption here is unbelievable. That's why the country is falling apart."
Five people were killed near a polling station in La Mosquitia, in eastern Honduras, although police said the violence was not related to the election.
Hernandez has pledged to "do whatever it takes to bring peace and tranquility to the country," deploying the army alongside a new military police force to tame drug gangs. That has fanned worries of human rights abuses and corruption.
"I believe whoever gets involved in crime, should be put in their place by the state," Hernandez said this week. "Simple."
In Congress, he oversaw a reform to allow the extradition of Hondurans involved in organized crime to the United States, and rolled out a militarized police force to reclaim control of a nation of 8.5 million people where 20 are killed every day.
"Hernandez has had a lot of power, and (his) new government will be an extension of what has come before," said Eugenio Sosa, a political analyst and sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Nonetheless, most experts believe there is no quick fix to the violence bred by feuds between rival gangs seeking to move South American cocaine to the United States through Honduras.
Hernandez may also struggle to clean up a police corruption and drive investment to a country shunned by foreign investors and controlled by a tight-knit cabal of business elites.
Annual growth is expected to slow to around 3 percent this year, from 3.3 percent in 2012, while the fiscal deficit is likely to exceed 7 percent of gross domestic product.
The impact of fungus roya, or leaf rust, on large swaths of the country's coffee crop will likely raise pressure on a yawning current account deficit the International Monetary Fund projects will be 11.2 percent of GDP this year.
The left-leaning Castro of the Liberty and Refoundation Party, or LIBRE - a coalition of leftist politicians, unions and indigenous groups founded by Zelaya - had vowed to create a community police force and scale back the army's involvement.
She also says she would rewrite the constitution, which risks antagonizing the business elite and those behind the ouster of Zelaya in 2009 after he made similar overtures.
Zelaya took office in 2006 as a conservative but moved to the left under the influence of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. When he explored amending the constitution, his opponents interpreted it as a bid to seek a second term.
The Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's ouster and the army forced him out of the country. Honduras' Congress endorsed his removal but U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders denounced it as a coup.
With no clear majority expected in Congress, the winner will likely have to make concessions with rival lawmakers in a move that should fend off a repeat coup.
More than a century of two-party control has crumbled during the election, with LIBRE's emergence broadening the political mainstream. A more pluralistic Honduran political landscape should be the legacy of the vote.