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Something Really Strange Is Going on With the Presidential Election in Honduras

"We will defend our triumph, and if it's necessary, we will do it in the streets."

National Party Presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez, center, waves the flag of Honduras during his closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. Honduras will hold general elections on Nov. 24. At right is his wife, Ana Garcia.. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) AP Photo/Moises Castillo

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The hotly contested presidential race in this country plagued by violence and poverty went silent Monday, with the major candidates disappearing from public view and the electoral count coming to a halt without final results or explanation.

Neither election officials nor the parties offered any comment about why announcements on progress in the vote count had stopped.

After releasing results from counting 54 percent of the votes just a few hours after the polls closed Sunday, Honduras' electoral court had only advanced to about 60 percent by Monday afternoon. Elections observers, who initially called the election clean, said they had no comment and would issue final reports Tuesday.

National Party Presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez, center, waves the flag of Honduras during his closing campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. Honduras will hold general elections on Nov. 24. At right is his wife, Ana Garcia.. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The two main competing parties continued to claim victory early in the day, then were not heard from again. No one even celebrated the announced lead of Juan Orlando Hernandez of the governing National Party, who had just over 34 percent of the votes. No balloons, no rallies, nothing.

His closest opponent in an eight-candidate field was Xiomara Castro, who had almost 29 percent of the votes. Castro's husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup that has left the country politically unstable. Castro didn't appear at all Monday, but Zelaya said their party would not accept the results.

"We will defend our triumph, and if it's necessary, we will do it in the streets," he said.

But only about 100 demonstrators rallied for Castro, and the capital's streets were otherwise quiet.

To add to a curious nature of the postelection period, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was just about the only head of state to publicly congratulate Hernandez as Honduras' newly elected president. Ortega was a staunch ally of Zelaya after the coup.

There were unconfirmed reports of meetings between officials and political parties, and speculation about what was happening began percolating almost immediately.

"The political parties are cooking and negotiating the results among themselves," said Arabeska Sanchez, a researcher and founder of Honduras' University Institute for Peace and Security, though she conceded she was not at any if the meetings and had no firsthand knowledge. "We thought the democracy was advancing."

One official who said he was in one closed meeting said the parties were arguing technical difficulties that occurred with some of the vote scanners, but said that even the irregularities were not going to change the results. The official agreed to discuss the matter only if granted anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Hernandez and Castro went into Sunday's election neck-and-neck in opinion polls, and there have been worries that disputed election results could bring protests and more instability even though voting itself went off peacefully.

Honduras' Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro speaks to supporters during her closing campaign rally in Juticalpa, Honduras, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Castro, the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, is running for president in Honduras' Nov. 24 elections. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Because Honduras gives victory to the top vote-getter no matter how many contenders are in a race, the winner of Sunday's election will likely have no more than a third of the votes and face a divided Congress, whose 128 members were also elected. As a result, the political situation is unlikely to change in the failing state of 8.5 million people, which is home to the world's worst homicide rate and is a transit point for much of the South American cocaine heading to the U.S.

Castro, 54, had led the race for months while portraying herself as the candidate for change, promising relief from violence and poverty and constitutional reform that would make the country more equitable.

In the closing weeks, however, Hernandez, 45, wiped out Castro's lead as he focused on a promise to bring law and order. As president of Congress, Hernandez pushed through legislation creating a military police force to patrol the streets in place of the National Police, which are penetrated by corruption and often accused of extrajudicial killings.

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