November 29, 2009 / 3:50 PM / 10 years ago

Hondurans to elect new president after June coup

(For a Take a Look on the Honduras election, see [ID:nHONDURAS])

* Ousted President Zelaya, de facto ruler not running

* United States looks ready to recognize winner

* But Brazil and Argentina say vote illegitimate (Updates with voting started, quotes from voters)

By Mica Rosenberg

TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Hondurans choose a new president on Sunday in an election that could ease a crisis triggered by a coup but the vote has pitted Washington against some of the biggest countries in Latin America.

Neither President Manuel Zelaya nor arch-rival Roberto Micheletti, installed as interim president by Congress after Zelaya’s overthrow in June, is in the race. That leaves the door open for someone else to take the coffee-producing Central American nation beyond the gridlock that has crippled it for months and cut off international aid.

Doubts remain over whether the world will recognize the election because it is being run by the coup leaders and could end any hope of Zelaya returning to power.

The two leading candidates hail from the ruling elite and have tried to convince voters that the election will let Honduras move on.

"What we want is to leave this crisis behind as fast as possible. People’s patience is running out," said 33-year-old Ivan Zuniga, a bank worker voting early in the capital.

Zelaya, camped out in the Brazilian Embassy since September when he snuck back to Honduras from exile, says the vote is invalid and is telling supporters to stay home.

Soldiers grabbed the leftist from his home on June 28 and threw him out of the country, sparking Central America’s biggest political crisis since the end of the Cold War.

The U.S. State Department says Sunday’s election is "a democratic way forward for the Honduran people" after talks to bring Zelaya back collapsed.

The U.S. position splits President Barack Obama from some Latin American leaders who say an election organized by Micheletti’s de facto government is invalid and would amount to a victory for the coup leaders.

Obama wants to improve ties with the region — still haunted by memories of U.S.-backed military governments in the late 20th century — but risks isolating himself from Brazil and Argentina, which reject the election.

Voting opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) at the more than 5,000 polling stations.

"We want the international community to reflect and listen to the voice of Hondurans," Enrique Ortez from the electoral tribunal said in a live broadcast.

Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo from the conservative opposition National Party, a wealthy landowner who lost the 2005 election to Zelaya, has emerged as the frontrunner in the election.

Lobo says that if he wins, he will plead with foreign leaders to restore support and seek a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, after foreign donors slashed aid to impoverished Honduras after the coup.

In an October poll by CID-Gallup, Lobo was 16 points ahead of his closest rival, Elvin Santos from Zelaya’s and Micheletti’s Liberal Party. [ID:nN26348512]

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Security forces have cracked down repeatedly on anti-coup protesters, causing several deaths, and some observers say a fair vote is impossible after Micheletti temporarily shut down pro-Zelaya news channels.

The Organization of American States and the United Nations refused to send observer missions to the election, set before Zelaya’s overthrow.

A series of small home-made explosive devices went off at voting centers and news stations in recent days but there have been no major injuries. Even so, some Hondurans say they are afraid to vote or will stay inside to support Zelaya.

"I am not going to vote and am trying to convince my family not to go either. I can’t vote with the president locked up," said Angela Ramos, 46, who was selling traditional corn cakes.

Soldiers shot and seriously wounded a man in a car outside military headquarters in the capital on Friday night. Police said the man failed to stop at a checkpoint.

Major television channels and radio stations, controlled by a clutch of wealthy businessmen who backed the coup, are rallying the public with upbeat commercials and commentaries about how the vote can save the country.

Zelaya angered the military, Congress, the Supreme Court and members of his own party by moving closer to Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez. They accused Zelaya of trying to stay in power by changing the constitution. [ID:nN26348519] (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia, Tomas Sarmiento and Anahi Rama in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Xavier Briand and Bill Trott) (For a factbox on Honduras click on [ID:nN19166857] For a profile of the two presidents click on [ID:nN26348519] For a timeline on the Honduras crisis, click on [ID:nGEE5AQ1RE] For a profile on the candidates, click on [ID:nN26348512] For key facts about the crisis, click on [ID:nN19166857])

((mica.rosenberg@thomsonreuters.com; +52 55 5282 7153; Reuters Messaging: mica.rosenberg.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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