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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Honduras' strange political saga comes to a head this weekend. That's Hondurans elect a new president. Their last elected leader, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted five months ago but he remains in limbo at the Brazilian embassy there. Many Latin American countries are refusing to recognize the elections organized by the defacto government of Roberto Micheletti. Yet some Hondurans say this weekend's election could be the first step towards ending the country's political crisis. John Otis reports from the capital Tegucigalpa.
PORFIRIO LOBO: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
JOHN OTIS: During a televised debate presidential front runner, Porfirio Lobo, pledges to attack corruption and reduce poverty in Honduras. Lobo's main challenger, Elvin Santos, offers a similar message in his campaign speeches.
ELVIN SANTOS: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
OTIS: But the issue neither candidate mentions is what to do about deposed president Manuel Zelaya, a leftist with close ties to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Zelaya was removed from office by the Honduran military on June 28th amid fears he would try to change the constitution to remain in power. He was flown into exile. But he later snuck back in to Honduras and now remains holed up in the heavily guarded Brazilian embassy. Last month US diplomats announced they had brokered a deal to reinstate Zelaya for the remainder of his term. But the agreement hinged on the approval of the Honduran congress and most legislatures opposed Zelaya. They were also busy campaigning for re-election and have postponed their decision on Zelaya's fate until next month. Miguel Gutierres is Honduran newspaper publisher claims congress is simply trying to run out the clock.
MIGUEL GUTIERRES: This has been a delay and a delay and a delay. I don't personally believe that they will reinstate Zelaya back. Meanwhile Roberto Micheletti, Honduras' provisional president is pushing ahead with the elections.
ROBERTO MICHELETTI: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
OTIS: To appease the international community Micheletti last week announced he would assume a low profile and make no more public appearances until after the voting. Still the elections are going forward under a cloud of suspicion. The organization of American states has refused to send electoral observes to Honduras. Brazil, Argentina, and other Latin American nations say they will not recognize the results. One presidential hopeful and dozens of pro-Zelaya legislative candidates have withdrawn saying their participation would only legitimize the coup.
Anti-government marches have been banned in the capital Tegucigalpa but everyday Zelaya supporters meet in front of congress. They're calling on Hondurans to stay home on election day and protest. Juan Barahona is one of the main opposition leaders.
JUAN BARAHONA: [SPEAING SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: This is a coup regime. One that's illegal and illegitimate therefore the electoral is illegal and illegitimate.
OTIS: Micheletti as well as the two leading presidential candidates are betting that relatively clean elections will make people forget about Zelaya. Daniel O'Connor is an American business man and a member of the Democratic Civic Union, a group that strongly backs Micheletti.
DANIEL O'CONNOR: I think there's a strong expectation that the elections will be free, fair, and transparent. That the results will be ultimately recognized.
OTIS: The US government has cut off military and other non-emergency aid to Honduras yet critics say Washington could have taken a tougher stance. Instead American diplomats have hinted they will recognize the elections whether or not Zelaya is reinstated and that may have stiffened the resolve of the Micheletti government. US Ambassador Hugo Llorens says there's still time for Zelaya to return to the presidency. He insists voters have the right to go to the polls next week and the condemning the elections would be akin to blaming the entire Honduran population for the coup.
HUGO LLORENS: We've worked very hard. We'll continue very hard to restore the democratic order. But certainly free, fair, and transparent elections will be a part of the solution in Honduras.
OTIS: The next president will be sworn in on January 27th. On that day all eyes will be on the figure handing over the presidential sash to the new Honduran leader. Lisa Haugaard of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group says that if Micheletti rather than Zelaya presides over the ceremony it will send a dangerous message to the rest of the region.
LISA HAUGAARD: We have thought that coups were things of the past and it's very disturbing that there can be a coup that is more or less successful.
OTIS: For The World I'm John Otis in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.