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Tensions have been high as the presidential election in Honduras nears

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Presidential elections are set to take place this Sunday in Honduras. The Central American nation has been battered by the pandemic, two back-to-back hurricanes and a corrupt political system. Hondurans have been leaving the country for the U.S. in droves. And with past elections marred by accusations of fraud and violence, tensions are high.

We're now joined by NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Welcome, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: We just mentioned a number of problems facing the country. What's the top issue on people's minds going into the election?

KAHN: Yeah, there's a lot of issues. I'd say the top issue is the economy. Honduras' economy shrank by some 10% during the pandemic. We've heard estimates of half a million jobs lost in the past year. And then these hurricanes, Eta and Iota, were catastrophic, especially in the industrial north, where much of Honduras' economic output is. Reconstruction, at best you can say, has been slow. So first and foremost, it's unemployment and the economy.

And coming in a close second is the widespread dislike and the corruption surrounding the current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, and his National Party, which has been in power here for 12 years. And Juan Orlando has been in office for the last eight of those 12 years, and he has a very checkered record. He changed the constitution so he could be reelected in 2017, and that election was just marred by allegations of fraud and post-electoral violence. And also, Juan Orlando has been linked to his brother's drug-running activities. He denies that, but his brother was recently sentenced to life in prison in the U.S.

CORNISH: So right now, who's on the ballot and what are they offering?

KAHN: Yeah, it's quite a cast of characters. The frontrunner is Xiomara Castro. She's the wife of a former president who was deposed in a coup in 2009. Since that coup, she's emerged as a political leader in her own right. And she has - and she's seen as a champion of the poor. But the ruling party tries to portray her as this radical leftist aligned with Venezuela and Cuba, tying her to her husband's legacy and also long-standing allegations he has of taking bribes when he was president, too.

Then there's the ruling party's candidate, Nasry Asfura. He's been the mayor of the capital here, and his slogan, Audie, is (speaking Spanish) - daddy at your service. And he portrays himself as this hard worker in that he's - his slogan is, I'm different. That's his attempt to distance himself from President Juan Orlando. But Asfura has also been accused of misdeeds, misappropriating public funds as mayor of Tegucigalpa to the tune of a million dollars.

And then just quickly got to add one more candidate. He's running a distant third, and he's a political - familiar name here in the country - Yani Rosenthal. He just returned to Honduras after a stint in a U.S. federal prison for money laundering.

CORNISH: What are you hearing from voters?

KAHN: Many people I spoke with on the streets just aren't happy with this crop of candidates and just really aren't happy with politics in general. But Xiomara Castro has been able to rally the opposition to her candidacy, and she's ahead in the polls.

Honduras - Hondurans have the lowest level of support for democracy in Latin America. And they're just sick of all this, and many are voting with their feet. Hundreds leave the country daily, and there's been a large increase in the numbers of Hondurans trying to cross the U.S. southern border. Even if you look at pre-pandemic levels and now, there's a big increase.

And people here - that are here now are just worried about post-election violence, like what took place in 2007. I saw businesses all day yesterday boarding up storefronts. And U.S. officials have called on all parties to respect the outcome, but there are concerns about how the votes will get counted, vote buying and coercion by the ruling party.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn watching the campaigning in Honduras. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KAHN: You're welcome, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "FATHER AND DAUGHTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.