Honduras was in a state of limbo on Tuesday as presidential election results began to trickle in after a 24-hour delay, with a TV host’s surprise lead suddenly starting to plunge, prompting him to claim that electoral fraud was taking place.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who won US praise for helping tackle the flow of migrants and deporting drug cartel leaders, was favored to win before the Sunday vote in the poor Central American nation with one of the world's highest murder rates.
But a delayed, partial count on Monday morning pointed toward an unexpected victory for TV entertainer Salvador Nasralla, 64. Inexplicably, election authorities then stopped giving results for more than 24 hours.
When, under mounting criticism from international election monitors over a lack of transparency, the electoral tribunal began updating its website again, the tendency rapidly began to change.
In a television interview on Tuesday evening, an angry Nasralla said the election was being stolen from him and asked his supporters to flock to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to protest.
"We've already won the election," he said. "I'm not going to tolerate this, and as there are no reliable institutions in Honduras to defend us, tomorrow the Honduran people need to defend the vote on the streets."
Nasralla accused the conservative president of plotting to rig the vote, saying his "survival instinct" was hijacking democracy.
He also said Hernandez was colluding with the army and the electoral authorities to forge new result sheets and give himself the edge in the Sunday presidential election.
"He controls the media. He's going to have the result sheets he wants validated and change the will of the people."
"He's trying to sow chaos so he can declare a state of emergency and take control with the help of his people and the army."
The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (EOM/OAS) in Honduras urged people to remain calm and wait for official results, which it said should be delivered as quickly and transparently as possible.
"The credibility of the electoral authorities and the legitimacy of the future president depend on this," it said in a statement.
On Tuesday evening, Nasralla's original five-point lead had thinned to under 2 percentage points, with nearly 71 percent of ballots counted, according to the election tribunal.
Nasralla said in a later television interview that the election tribunal was only counting ballots from regions where Hernandez had won, skewing the results and giving the false sense that the president was heading for victory. He asked the tribunal to include ballots from regions where he was stronger.
The election in this poor, gang-plagued country has turned into a drawn-out showdown between Nasralla, 64, and Hernandez, 49, who is going for four more years in office despite a constitutional limit of just one term.
Both candidates have declared victory, but the results are far from clear.
Hernandez's conservative National Party — which controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government — contends that a 2015 Supreme Court ruling allows his re-election.
Nasralla and his coalition, the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, have denounced the incumbent's bid, saying the court does not have the power to overrule the 1982 constitution.
On Tuesday, Hernandez reiterated that he had won, and refused to concede, telling supporters they should wait for final results.
"The result is more than clear," he said at the presidential residence. "It is important for everyone to be patient, for everyone to be considerate with Honduras."
After Hernandez spoke, thousands of his blue-clad supporters gathered outside the presidential residence to celebrate his supposed victory.
"We won the election with Juan Orlando Hernandez, and we won't let them remove him from power," said 35-year-old housewife Maria Aguirre, who hailed from a rough neighborhood on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa.
Meanwhile, two European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said the election tribunal's delay was due to difficult negotiations between Hernandez's National Party and Nasralla's alliance. Behind closed doors, the parties were discussing immunity from prosecution for current officials and how to carve up positions in government, the diplomats said.
But in an interview on Tuesday, Nasralla denied he was in talks with the National Party.
He vowed to review whether to keep US troops stationed at a base in the country if he wins the election but also promised to deepen security cooperation with the US.
Hernandez's National Party appears set to retain control of Congress in the election, giving it the second-most important perch in the country.
The European Union's chief observer for the election, Marisa Matias, urged election officials to maintain an open channel of communication as they finalized the results.
The electoral body had been so certain Hernandez would win that it showed unprecedented transparency during the contest, one of the diplomats said. That left the body with little room to maneuver when Nasralla came from nowhere to take a strong lead.
Nasralla is backed by former president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in 2009 after he proposed a referendum on his re-election. The possible return to a position of influence for one-time leftist Zelaya risks fueling concern in Washington.
Situated in the heart of Central America's "Northern Triangle," where gangs and poverty are rife, Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Hernandez was credited with lowering the murder rate and boosting the economy, but he was also hurt by accusations of ties to illicit, drug-related financing that he denies.