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Political unrest grips Honduras after disputed election

Fernando Antonio/Associated Press

A supporter of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla threw wood on a fire during a protest Thursday. Nasralla said Thursday he will not accept the results of the country’s election.

By Elisabeth Malkin New York Times 

MEXICO CITY — Honduras was on the edge of political turmoil Thursday, with the opposition candidate accusing vote counters of trying to “steal our victory” in an election whose results are sharply contested.

The candidate, Salvador Nasralla, said Wednesday that he would not accept the count of the country’s electoral commission, whose computer tally showed that President Juan Orlando Hernández had closed a gap that initially put Nasralla ahead in the voting that ended Sunday.

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Nasralla’s statement that he would not accept the count represented an about-face from a letter he had signed a few hours earlier along with Hernández. Brokered by the Organization of American States, the agreement committed both men to respecting the commission’s results.

With ballots counted at about 80 percent of polling places, the candidates’ vote totals were almost even when Nasralla backtracked on the agreement. A final result is expected by Friday.

The standoff threatens to escalate political unrest in the deeply divided country, echoing the crisis that erupted eight years ago when a coup forced out President Manuel Zelaya, who is the political strategist behind the left-wing coalition backing Nasralla.

Opposition supporters protested through Wednesday night outside the electoral court’s facilities, setting up some highway roadblocks and lighting fires in the streets, the Associated Press reported. Street protests continued Thursday, with rock throwers facing off against police armed with tear gas and water cannons, as calls to maintain calm were increasingly unheeded.

Erratic behavior by the electoral commission since the polls closed has lent credibility to the opposition’s allegations of fraud. The commission, which is controlled by allies of Hernández, suspended the counting of ballots Monday after Nasralla pulled ahead by almost five percentage points.

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Counting resumed a day and a half later, on Tuesday afternoon, and the gap steadily began to close. After Nasralla signed the OAS agreement, the commission’s computer went dark again. The commission’s president said the server was overloaded.

“We don’t recognize the results of the cheating” electoral commission,” Nasralla, 64, said at a news conference as supporters cheered. Holding up what he said were copies of unsigned tally sheets, Nasralla, a former sportscaster, said, “They are taking us for fools, and they want to steal our victory.”

Nasralla’s early lead in the election was a surprise. As president, the conservative Hernández, 49, had established control over all the branches of government, including the electoral commission.

This week’s political unrest comes as Honduras grapples with stubbornly high poverty, drug gangs and one of the world’s worst murder rates.