Honduran businessman appears headed for win in presidential vote

Monday, November 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ A businessman touting a ``zero tolerance'' anti-crime plan appeared headed for a win Sunday in Honduras' presidential election over a former teacher who promised better education.

The first official vote tallies showed businessman and Nationalist Party candidate Ricardo Maduro winning with 52.2 percent to 44.4 percent for rival Rafael Pineda of the ruling Liberal Party with 23 percent of votes counted. Exit polls also showed Maduro winning.

Cheering, horn-honking caravans of Maduro's supporters celebrated in the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa, waving blue Nationalist banners. Maduro declared victory, saying ``The people voted for a profound reform.

``We'll start by ensuring that everybody obeys the law as it has never been obeyed before,'' he said.

Violence leading up to the elections _ a congressional candidate was killed Friday and gunmen shot at a political party headquarters Saturday _ underscored the central issue: what to do with a generation of young Hondurans who have grown up amid crime and poverty.

A team of international observers reported Sunday after polls closed that the voting had been peaceful and without major incidents.

The ruling Liberal Party, led by President Carlos Flores, has had to govern through some of the roughest times in the history of this Central American country of 6.5 million. Hurricane Mitch hit the country in 1998, killing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Pineda, a 71-year-old former grade-school teacher and current head of the country's congress, said he wants ``to make Honduras one big school,'' and offered to improve public services with money gained by cracking down on tax evaders.

But Saida Burgos _ a 47-year-old housewife who has been robbed three times at knife and gunpoint _ voted for Maduro because of his anti-crime program. ``Who is going to invest here, if they're afraid of getting robbed?'' Burgos said.

If early results hold, Maduro is expected to target, in part, the tens of thousands of gang members who frequently stage turf battles and deal drugs. But his tough approach has voters like Cinthia Baldin, 25, worried. ``A lot of innocent people may get hurt. Some young people are in the gangs because they've got no other option,'' said Baldin, a Pineda supporter.

``I do believe that education can fight crime, and the problems like social injustice, unemployment and poor public services that give rise to crime,'' said Pineda.

Maduro _ a 54-year-old businessman whose own son was killed by gunmen in 1997 _ had built a comfortable lead in polls with his campaign slogan ``A Safe Future'' and promises to implement a New York City-style ``zero tolerance'' program on crime. He has cited New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's anti-crime measures as an inspiration.

Maduro mourned another death after unidentified gunmen killed Angel Pacheco, a 44-year-old congressional candidate from his Nationalist Party near the El Salvador border Friday. Police had no immediate information on motives in the killing.

On Saturday, Pineda's Liberal Party said gunmen fired from a passing car on its headquarters in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, though no one was injured.

Three other candidates from minor parties are also vying for the presidency, but are expected to garner few votes. The 3.4 million registered voters in the country _ where minimum wages are around $100 a month _ will also vote for all 128 seats in congress and nearly 300 mayorships.

Economic hardship has forced hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to seek work in the United States, and voting booths were also set up for Hondurans in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington and New York.

Local television showed scenes of Maduro supporters cheering after they voted in Miami. In New Orleans, where Pineda had a slight edge, supporters of the Liberal Party marked the night with a traditional Honduran dish of yucca and pork skin.