Contrary to most recent exit poll prediction, Opposition Alliance candidate Salvador Nasralla leads the election with 45.7 percent.

Presidential candidate for the Honduran Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship, Salvador Nasralla (C) celebrates with Iroshka Elvir de Nasralla (L), Guillermo Valle (2-L) and former president Manuel Zelaya (2-R) after the general election, in Tegucigalpa on November 27, 2017. (Photo AFP)
Presidential candidate for the Honduran Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship, Salvador Nasralla (C) celebrates with Iroshka Elvir de Nasralla (L), Guillermo Valle (2-L) and former president Manuel Zelaya (2-R) after the general election, in Tegucigalpa on November 27, 2017. (Photo AFP) (AFP)

The main challenger to Honduras' president held an unexpected lead on Monday in early returns from the presidential election, then officials stopped releasing results and the ruling party continued to claim victory, calling on to its supporters to take to the streets to counter rival party's celebrations. 

David Matamoros, president of the electoral court, announced around 2 am that with 57 percent of the votes counted from Sunday's election, Salvador Nasralla had 45.7 percent to 40.2 percent for conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Hernandez, an ally of the US, had gone into the election predicted to win based on his popularity for fighting crime, but his party also drew heavy criticism for getting a court to override the Honduran constitution's ban on consecutive presidential terms.

And corruption cases also tainted the administration.

Turnout in Sunday's vote appeared to be heavy across the country, with relatively minor irregularities reported.

The electoral court went silent after announcing the initial partial results, leaving many people asking whether attempts were being made to change the outcome.

Julio Navarro, a sociologist and political analyst in Tegucigalpa, criticized the electoral court.

"It keeps failing us," he said. "Last night it promised official results early and didn't give them to us until dawn and still hasn't offered more information."

A victory for broad coalition

Nasralla called for his supporters to celebrate in front of the electoral court's offices, while Reynaldo Sanchez, president of the ruling National Party, sent a recorded message to party members saying it was time "to prepare our people to defend the triumph in the streets."

The Electoral Observation Coaltion N-26, a nonpartisan civil society group, expressed concern at the silence from election officials.

"The lack of official data generates unnecessary speculation in the population, is unsettling and does not favor the transparency and legitimacy of the process," the group said.

Manuel Orozco, a senior fellow with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said it would be embarrassing for the government to back away from the preliminary results.

"The international community has been working with them. They all say that the election process, the election itself seemed to be clean and not violent," he said.

"It would really be very surprising that Juan Orlando Hernandez could win with the vote from some of the rural communities. If anything I think they are probably discussing how to present the results."

Corruption and drug trafficking

Nasralla, a 64-year-old sportscaster and one of the country's best-known television personalities, was making his second bid for the presidency.

Although he has a reputation as conservative, he ran as the candidate of the Alliance Against Dictatorship, a coalition formed with the leftist party of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted by a military coup in 2009.

Experts said that should Nasralla prevail, forming a coalition government with Zelaya's party could be complicated.

"There will be serious problems in the future and it is likely that Zelaya will win those disagreements because of his broad political experience," Navarro said.

A coalition government would also have to decide whether to be conciliatory or vindictive toward the outgoing government.

The alliance campaigned on eradicating corruption and bringing in a new economic model, but offered few details beyond its interest in moving away from privatization and other free-market economic policies.

The preliminary result "suggests Hondurans are more unhappy than we might have expected with the corruption of this government and some of the human rights issues," said Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at WOLA, a nonprofit Latin American human rights group in Washington.

Honduras has an anti-corruption mission backed by the Organization of American States, which has worked for more than a year to help strengthen the country's crime fighting institutions.

But Nasralla said he wants a system more like that in Guatemala, where a United Nations-supported commission has worked with local prosecutors for more than a decade to pursue corruption cases that have even reached the presidential office.

Nasralla also vowed to continue extraditing drug traffickers, a widely popular policy in Honduras.

Hernandez built his support largely on a drop in violence in this impoverished Central American country, whose homicide rate was once among the world's worst.

Honduras' National Autonomous University says the rate has fallen to 59 homicides per 100,000 people, from a dizzying high of 91.6 in 2011.

But corruption and drug trafficking allegations cast a shadow over his government.

A convicted drug trafficker testified in a New York courtroom this year that he met with Hernandez's brother Antonio to get Honduras' government to pay its debts to a company that the trafficker's cartel used to launder money.

Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, ex-leader of the cartel known as the Cachiros, testified that Antonio Hernandez asked him for a bribe in exchange for government contracts. Hernandez's brother has denied that allegation.

In September, the son of a former president affiliated to Hernandez's party, Porfirio Lobo, was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison after revealing his role in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy.

Fabio Lobo, 46, had pleaded guilty in May 2016, admitting he worked with drug traffickers and Honduran police to ship cocaine into the United States.

Source: AP