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Hondurans vote for president as country struggles with violence and poverty

Hondurans have been to the polls to elect a new President as the country continues to struggle with violence and poverty in the wake of a 2009 coup. Opinion polls predict a very close race between the top two contenders.

Sunday's vote pitted the leftist wife of Honduras' deposed president, Xiomara Castro (pictured above), against the head of Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez, of the ruling conservative National Party. Polls put the two candidates in a statistical tie heading into the election, though Castro is regarded as the slight favorite ahead of Hernandez.

Polls opened at around 8 a.m. (1300 UTC), with no initial problems reported. More than 5.3 million registered voters were able to take part in the vote in Honduras, the poorest country in the Americas behind Haiti. Around 70 percent of Honduras' 8.4 million people live in poverty.

The 54-year-old Castro, whose husband Manuel Zelaya was removed as president in a 2009 coup, led the race for months ahead of the vote. She campaigned on a platform of easing the violence and poverty that have increased since President Porfirio Lobo took office four years ago. Should she win, Castro would become Honduras' first female president.

Hernandez, 45, has seen his support swell in recent weeks. He has promoted himself as the candidate for law in order in a country the UN says boasts the world's highest murder rate at 20 per day. Gangs control entire neighborhoods, extort businesses and use the country as a key point for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to the US. Cracking down on crime is seen as the primary issue for most voters.

A pre-election Cid-Gallup poll put Castro at 28 percent support compared to Hernandez at 27 percent. Liberal Party candidate Mauricio Villeda trails in third place with 17 percent support.

At least 30,000 police officers and soldiers were deployed for election security, military spokesman Jeremias Arevalo told the daily El Heraldo. Hundreds international observers, including representatives from the European Union and the Organization of American States were monitoring the vote.

dr/mz (dpa, AP, AFP)