Honduras ruling party hope leads presidential vote

By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The conservative ruling party candidate claimed victory in the presidential election in Honduras on Sunday after an early vote count put him ahead, but his leftist rival also said she was the winner, setting the stage for a potential conflict.

The electoral authority said a partial tally of votes gave National Party candidate Juan Hernandez nearly 35 percent support while Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed former leader Manuel Zelaya, had just over 28 percent.

The preliminary results were based on the count from 24 percent of polling booths. Final results were expected later on Sunday.

Hernandez, who is the head of Congress, has vowed a tough militarized response to drug gang violence fueling the world's highest murder rate, while Castro is seeking a shift to the left that could revive her husband's political career.

The two rivals offer distinct visions for Honduras, the biggest coffee exporter in Central America. The country is saddled with the world's worst annual murder rate of 85 per 100,000 people, and how to tame drug gangs was a key focus of the campaign.

"I don't go out anywhere at night because here they'll kill you for a cellphone," Antonlin Castro, 59, an electrician in the capital, Tegucigalpa, said before voting booths closed. "Corruption here is unbelievable. That's why the country is falling apart."

Five people were killed near a polling station in La Mosquitia, in eastern Honduras, although police said the violence was not election-related. The capital was calm on Sunday night.

Hernandez has pledged to "do whatever it takes to bring peace and tranquility to the country," deploying the army alongside a new military police force to tame drug gangs. That has fanned worries of human rights abuses and corruption.

"I believe whoever gets involved in crime, should be put in their place by the state," Hernandez said on Friday. "Simple."

(Additional reporting by Miguel Gutierrez; Editing by Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham)