Honduras Poised to Elect First Female President, Wife of Ex-President Ousted in 2009 Coup

Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of a former president ousted in a coup, has taken a strong lead in Honduras' presidential election.

The Associated Press reported that if preliminary tallies from Sunday are confirmed, Castro de Zelaya will soon become the first female president of Honduras.

Castro de Zelaya, 62, was a candidate for the position in the last three elections throughout the past 12 years. She has long said "the third time is the charm."

If Castro de Zelaya is elected, it will also mark her family's return to the Honduran Presidential Palace. Her husband, Manuel Zelaya, became president of the country in 2006. In 2009, after proposing constitutional changes that would allow presidents to serve two consecutive terms, the Honduran Supreme Court issued an order to detain Zelaya. He was captured and sent into exile.

After the coup, Castro de Zelaya rose in prominence, leading protests demanding her husband's reinstatement. When Zelaya formed the Libre, or Free Party, Castro de Zelaya was very popular among the movement's followers.

She ran for president for the first time in 2013. At a recent campaign event, she said she sees it as a campaign to free her country.

"Honduras has been described as a narco-state because of the mafia that governs us, and we have also been described as the most corrupt country in Latin America," Castro de Zelaya said. "People of Honduras, now is the time to say enough of the misery, poverty and exclusion that our country suffers."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, Honduras
Free Party presidential candidate Xiomara Castro claimed victory in the presidential election, setting up a showdown with the National Party, which said its candidate had won a vote that could end the conservative party's 12 years in power. Above, Castro has her hand raised by her running mate Salvador Nasralla after general elections, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on November 28. Moises Castillo/AP Photo

Castro de Zelaya grew up in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, but moved to her husband's rural province of Olancho, known for its cattle ranches, when the couple wed.

Together they raised four children, and during her husband's 2006-2009 tenure, she played a relatively minor role, overseeing programs for women and children.

Since 2013, the first time she ran, Castro de Zelaya has been the principal thorn in the side of Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president who won elections in 2013, and then gained the blessings of the country's supreme court to run for re-election in 2017.

Castro de Zelaya ceded her candidacy in 2017 to Salvador Nasralla, a TV personality who ran at the head of an opposition coalition, and claimed to have narrowly defeated Hernández.

After a protracted election filled with irregularities in 2017, protesters filled the streets and the government imposed a curfew. Three weeks later, Hernández was declared the winner despite the Organization of American States observation mission calling for an election re-do. At least 23 people were killed.

Since then, Castro de Zelaya's movement has focused laser-like on getting Hernández out of office.

Hernández became a national embarrassment with U.S. federal prosecutors in New York accusing him of running a narco-state and fueling his own political rise with drug money. Hernández has denied it all and has not been formally charged, but that could change once he leaves office.

Castro de Zelaya will also have to overcome distrust caused by Mel Zelaya's sometimes headstrong and erratic governing style during his 2006-09 administration.

Luis León, the director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy in Honduras, said despite the bad blood between Libre and the long-dominant National and Liberal parties, Castro de Zelaya and her husband will have to be open to listening to others.

"It seems to me that the Libre party is clear that they should co-govern, because if they act autocratically, there would be a high level of ungovernability," León said.

The Libre party "would not risk closing the doors to dialogue and giving other parties a piece of the pie, in its first administration," León said. "It will be a flexible government, so that it can survive its first four years and go on to be a viable option in 2025."

Late Sunday, Castro promised a permanent dialogue with the Honduran people and said beginning Monday she wanted to open conversations with all sectors of society and international organizations to seek solutions for the Central American country, which is recovering from two major hurricanes, troubled by gangs and enduring corruption and high poverty.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, newspaper
With just over half of votes counted, former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya has taken more than 53.5 percent of the vote in the Honduran general elections. Above, a woman reads a newspaper in Tegucigalpa on November 29 a day after the elections in Honduras. Photo by Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images