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Honduran presidential hopeful feels pro-Zelaya backlash

Before the president was deposed, Elvin Santos seemed likely to win November's election. Now protesters pelt him with insults and eggs.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / August 21, 2009

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Elvin Santos, a construction company executive with a political pedigree and a beauty pageant wife, seemed a sure bet to win November's election and succeed Manuel Zelaya as Honduras' president.

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All bets are off, however, following the June 28 ouster of Mr. Zelaya.

Mr. Santos is now trailing in the race and has been pelted with insults, eggs, and bags of water by Zelaya supporters who think that Santos helped plot Zelaya's forced exile nearly two months ago.

In one incident earlier this month at the National Autonomous University, Santos's bodyguards drew their weapons, beat one student with a pistol butt, and fired one shot in the air as Santos escaped a jeering mob.

No evidence has emerged to substantiate claims that Santos supported the Zelaya's removal. But his nuanced position on Zelaya's ouster and their rivalry within the Liberal Party — Santos served as Zelaya's vice president before breaking with him when he resigned last year to run for president — have made him a ready target.

"This might be the most violent election in the history of the country," said Edmundo Orellana, a long-time Liberal Party stalwart who was Zelaya's defense minister. "There's a lot of anger and hate."

Outside pressure builds

The rising campaign tension threatens interim President Roberto Micheletti's efforts to oversee the Nov. 29 presidential and congressional elections and hand over power to the new president on Jan. 27.

This tension also adds to the pressure that Mr. Micheletti faces from the Obama administration and Latin American and European leaders who've warned that they won't accept the election results unless Zelaya returns to power, preferably under a plan brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

"They need to embrace it fully," a senior State Department official said by telephone Wednesday. "Countries in the hemisphere clearly want both sides to resolve this."

The political problems began after Zelaya veered left in the middle of his four-year term and embraced the socialist anti-poverty program of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a fierce US critic. Zelaya worsened matters by pushing for a June 28 vote giving Hondurans the chance to say whether they supported calling a special body to rewrite the country's constitution.

Virtually all of Honduras's major institutions lined up against him, saying that the country's current constitution did not permit the vote. They suspected that Zelaya was bent on making changes so he could seek another term as president, as Mr. Chávez and his allies have done.

Zelaya's supporters say any modification of the constitution wouldn't have taken place until after he left office in January.

Why Lobo benefits

The unintended beneficiary of the June ouster has been Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, the presidential candidate of the more conservative National Party.

Mr. Lobo is a rancher who flirted with Communism as a youth by studying in the Soviet Union before graduating from the University of Miami. He served as president of Congress and then narrowly lost the 2005 presidential election to Zelaya.