DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This Sunday, a presidential election will be held in Honduras. Nine candidates are vying to lead the Central American country. The top two contenders are the candidate from the ruling party that took power in a 2009 coup and the wife of the former president who was deposed in that coup. Crime and the economy are the big issues in a country with the world's highest homicide rate, rampant drug and gang violence, and a government that's mired in debt. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from the Honduran capital.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The ruling national party's candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, likes to say his party is the largest, strongest and most organized in the country. So do his billboard-sized campaign posters and ads dominating national TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)
KAHN: Orlando Hernandez, currently the head of Honduras' Congress, has tried to project the strong man image, and it seems to be working. His popularity has risen in recent months in this country where the homicide rate is now the highest in the world and drug traffickers and gangs have free reign. At his campaign headquarters last night, Orlando Hernandez said he will restore order in Honduras.
JUAN ORLANDO HERNANDEZ: I have to.
KAHN: How are you going to do it?
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish)
KAHN: In his standard white crisp pressed shirt and blue jeans, the 45-year-old lawyer switches easily between English and Spanish. He says he'll put criminals where they belong and use the military to police the streets, a move that has worried human rights activists who've long complained about abuses at the hands of the armed forces. And Orlando Hernandez says he will bring jobs to the country.
His national ruling party has been busy doing just that. In the run-up to the elections, a flurry of new roads, bridges and a mass transit bus line are being built in the capital, providing hundreds of new jobs. Worker Javier Marellada wears an Orlando Hernandez bandana under his hardhat.
JAVIER MARELLADA: (Speaking Spanish)
KAHN: He says he's just using it to protect his neck from the hot sun. While he appreciates the job, he's voting for Xiomara Castro, the candidate for the new LIBRE party, a coalition of unionists, gay rights activists and members of her husband's old liberal party who refused to back the coup. The ruling party and many in Honduras's controlled media have branded Xiomara Castro as a puppet for her husband's past leftist causes and someone who will change Honduras into the Venezuelan and Cuban communist model.
XIOMARA CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish)
KAHN: Speaking to a crowd of reporters recently, Xiomara Castro, wearing her usual red scarf and often referring to campaign supporters as comrades, says she has been the target of a dirty campaign. She insists, like her opponent, she too will reign in government spending, which has pushed Honduras's debt to more than 6 percent of GDP, the largest in Latin America.
And she'll also enter into a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, a move welcomed by the business community and market watchers. Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington says the race is going to be tight. So many candidates are on the ballot. The country has only had two parties trading off power since military rule ended in the 1980s.
ERIC OLSON: Honduras, despite having an election, may be in a politically weakened situation where the victors win with a small percentage and don't have a mandate.
KAHN: And, he says, no one will win an outright majority in the Congress. Observers warn that a close election night could spark violence and charges of fraud. Officials at the General Hospital say they've shored up blood supplies and put doctors on call, and prominent business leaders have reportedly increased their own personal security. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tegucigalpa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.