TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The squad of young soldiers surrounded the school to be used as a voting booth in this sweaty Central American capital and hauled sandbags to build a military post at its front gate.
The de facto government says such security, which is part of a huge deployment of troops across Honduras, will make people feel safe and confident to vote in Sunday’s national elections — the first to be held since President Manuel Zelaya was forced out in a military coup in June.
The ballot for a new president, congress and mayors, the military government hopes, will show the world that Honduras has restored democracy and can be brought back into the international community.
But Zelaya and his supporters argue the need for such a military operation underlines how the nation is in no condition to hold a fair franchise. Because the coup leaders have muzzled the press, ordered troops to shoot at protesters and imprisoned dissidents, there can be no fair race, he says.
“This is the first time in history that the executioners are being allowed to oversee a so-called transition back to democracy,” Zelaya told GlobalPost by phone from inside the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been holed up since he snuck back into the country in September.
“There can be no valid election when the regime has terrorized the Honduran people,” he said.
Zelaya has called on the nation to boycott the ballot and has urged the international community not to recognize its results.
But support for the Stetson-wearing populist — who pledged to fight for Honduras’ poor and downtrodden before he was forced into exile at gunpoint — is looking increasingly thin.
He is particularly dismayed about the Obama administration saying it will recognize the vote, after it had previously condemned the coup.
“The United States had a good position and then it weakened, it lost its way,” he said.
Following the U.S. position, many other countries have swung round to support the vote. Among the most notable new advocates is Costa Rican leader Oscar Arias who oversaw peace talks to try and restore Zelaya to the presidency. After those apparently failed, he announced Friday that he was supporting the election, saying isolation would only punish an already poor Honduras.
“Why do we want to make Honduras into the Burma of Central America? Why do we want a second Hurricane Mitch?” he asked CNN.
Support for Zelaya also appears to be waning inside Honduras.
Elvin Santos, a member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party is running in the presidential race and has gained the backing of several mayors who had previously supported the ousted leader.
Cesar Ham, a leftist who severely condemned the coup, is also on the ballot backed by some from the anti-regime camp.
This division on the left has made the candidate of the conservative Honduran National Party Porfiriro “Pepe” Lobo the favorite to win.
Lobo promises a conciliatory unity government if he does claim victory in Sunday’s race, saying the nation has to move on from the coup.
“This battle over the coup is a fight among politicians that has hurt Honduras,” he told a news conference. “Most Honduran people are more concerned about not having jobs and the streets being so dangerous.”
Another sign of slipping support for Zelaya is the weakening of street protests.
In the first weeks following the coup, tens of thousands came out to back the ousted president and even tried to take hold of the airport so that Zelaya could fly back into the country to resume power.
However, in the days before the election only a few hundred protesters were seen chanting support for the leader outside the congress building.
But while the streets are free from the police and protester clashes of the summer, many Hondurans say they are still worried about their safety when going to vote.
“I don’t know what might happen. I prefer to stay at home to make sure my family is OK,” said Wilma Garcia, a housewife from the capital.
Fueling such fears, dozens of small homemade bombs have been detonated over the weeks leading to the election in public places and government buildings.
The government blames the devices — which have caused no deaths and few injuries — on the pro-Zelaya resistance. However, Zelaya, who has always advocated peaceful protest, denies any connection saying they could be part of a dirty war by the coup leaders.
All sides say that the voter turnout will be crucial in showing how legitimate the elections will be.
While Zelaya vowed there would be the most abstentions in Honduran history, the leading candidate Lobo promised a high turnout.
“I guarantee there will be more votes than in the last election,” he said with his trademark grin from ear to ear, “and I am sure there will be a better turnout than most elections in the United States.”