TEGUCIGALPA - The winner of Honduras' controversial election called on Latin American governments on Monday to recognize him as president-elect to help pull the country out of a deep political crisis since a coup.
Sunday's election is likely to set Washington against emerging Latin American power Brazil, which says the vote was invalid and handed victory to the coup leaders who overthrew leftist President Manuel Zelaya on June 28.
The United States has tried and failed to have Zelaya reinstated and now looks resigned to backing the election as the best way for Honduras to get out of political gridlock and diplomatic isolation.
Opposition leader Porfirio Lobo won some 55 percent of the vote, easily defeating ruling party candidate Elvin Santos. A boycott by supporters of Zelaya was ineffective and electoral officials say the turnout was above 60 percent.
Lobo, 61, a conservative landowner, urged leftist governments in the region to recognize the vote, which was scheduled before the coup.
We ask them ... to see that they are punishing the people who went to vote, do so every four years and have nothing to do with what happened on June 28, he told journalists.
The U.S. State Department called the vote a necessary and important step forward after results came in on Sunday but did not say whether Washington would explicitly recognize Lobo.
It sounds to me like they're all set to recognize the election. They've made all the noises -- I guess there is some thing or other that could go wrong but it does seem to me (that they'll recognize it), said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank based in Washington.
But Brazil, which is increasingly flexing its muscles as its economy becomes more powerful, has dug its heels in on Honduras and refuses to acknowledge Lobo's win.
Brazil will maintain its position because it's not possible to accept a coup, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Sunday.
Zelaya, sent into exile in the June coup, slipped back into the country in September and has taken refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in the Honduran capital. That put Brazil at the heart of a crisis in a region where the United States has long been dominant.
Washington supported coups and right-wing governments fighting civil wars against Soviet-backed leftist guerrillas in Central America during the Cold War.
Today, millions of Central American immigrants to the United States send home money that is vital to the economies of countries like Honduras and El Salvador.
OBAMA'S APPROACH IN THE REGION
The coup against Zelaya sparked Central America's biggest political crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Neither Zelaya nor his arch-rival, Roberto Micheletti, who was installed as interim president by Congress after the coup, took part in the presidential election.
The dispute is threatening U.S. President Barack Obama's attempts to turn a new page with Latin America, where leftist governments are in the majority.
Argentina and Venezuela also oppose the Honduran election, but Panama, Peru and Costa Rica have said they back the vote.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said the elections were a sham and took place in absolute illegality, Telam official news agency reports said on Monday.
Honduras is the second largest coffee producer in Central America but the crisis has not affected production.
Lobo declared victory after electoral authorities gave him an almost unassailable lead with 55 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for Santos, who conceded defeat.
Lobo has also called on the international community to resume aid that was blocked in retaliation for the coup.
Due to take office in January, he must now decide what to do with Zelaya. He could try to negotiate a form of political amnesty for the deposed leader and the main players in the coup in a bid to unite the deeply divided nation.
Micheletti touted the vote as the way to end the crisis, upsetting leftists in Latin America who want to see Zelaya restored.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles in Washington, Fiona Ortiz in Buenos Aires; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)