Honduras opposition proposes election recount or run-off

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran opposition battling President Juan Orlando Hernandez over a disputed presidential election proposed on Tuesday that a run-off be held if authorities would not recount the entire vote.

Police officers stand guard at the headquarters of Honduras' elite police force, after an agreement with the government not to crack down on demonstrators in the marches over a contested presidential election, according to local media, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

TV star Salvador Nasralla, who claimed victory in the Nov. 26 election after early results put him ahead of Hernandez, has been locked in a bitter row over the vote count since the process broke down and suddenly swung in the president’s favor.

The dispute has sparked deadly protests and a night-time curfew in the poor, violent Central American country.

On Tuesday, Nasralla said the electoral tribunal should review virtually all the voting cards.

“If you don’t agree with that, let’s go to a run-off between (Hernandez) and Salvador Nasralla,” he said on Twitter.

Former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup and now backs Nasralla, said that the opposition was seeking a total recount of the vote, or legislation to permit a run-off, which is not used in Honduras.

Hernandez, who has been praised by the United States for his crackdown on violent street gangs, indicated later on Tuesday that his party might be willing to check all votes.

“We’re open to checking, that there’s a review of one, two, three, however many,” he said. “They talk about 5,000 (polling stations), of more, of less; there’s no problem, but it has to be under the procedures established by Honduran law.”

Hernandez has not claimed victory in broadcast comments in recent days, but said on Tuesday that “there will soon be time to celebrate,” and praised his center-right National Party for containing itself during the turmoil that has followed the vote.

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“That doesn’t mean it’s not a vigorous party, and when they see it in the street, they’ll see something extraordinary they haven’t seen yet,” he added, without elaborating.

Authorities took a week to count votes in the nation of 9 million people, but the Organization of American States (OAS) said results were marked by irregularities and errors.

The tribunal has not declared an official winner, but the results gave a 1.60 percentage point advantage to Hernandez over Nasralla, who says tally sheets from ballot boxes were altered and has declared himself the rightful winner.

On Tuesday, the top official at the electoral tribunal, David Matamoros, invited the opposition to compare their copies of voter tally sheets with the official body’s versions.

Matamoros also said the tribunal would extend a deadline for legal challenges to Friday from Wednesday.

Street protests in favor of Nasralla that began last week continued on Tuesday afternoon. Dozens of people, including police officers, gathered at the Tegucigalpa headquarters of Honduras’ elite police force yelling “Out, JOH,” referring to Hernandez’s initials.

Some rebel police officers had refused to crack down on demonstrations on Monday, urging the government to resolve the political deadlock.

But the police force said on Tuesday it had agreed to a deal under which it will not be asked to “repress” legitimate protest. If demonstrators are caught breaking curfew, their cases will be reviewed, but police officers will also accompany them home, a spokesman said.

Nasralla’s center-left Alliance bloc previously demanded a recount of nearly a third of tally sheets, a request that was backed by the OAS and European Union election observers. The Alliance is also expected to formally contest the results.

Early last week, Nasralla, a 64-year-old former sportscaster and game show host, appeared set for an upset victory, gaining a five-point lead with more than half of the ballots tallied.

The count halted for more than a day, and began leaning in favor of Hernandez after resuming.

Writing by Mexico City Newsroom, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry