By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A TV host took a surprise lead in the Honduran presidential election, initial results on Monday showed, upsetting forecasts of a win for the country's U.S.-friendly incumbent and raising concerns about instability as both parties claimed victory.
Flamboyant entertainer Salvador Nasralla was ahead with an almost 5 point margin at 45 percent, with more than half the ballot boxes counted, according to the first official results, released nearly 10 hours after Sunday's voting ended.
"I am the new president-elect of Honduras," Nasralla, 64, wrote on Twitter after the results were announced. Earlier, during the long wait for results, he and President Juan Orlando Hernandez had held competing events claiming victory.
Further results were expected later on Monday, and Nasralla called on his followers to march to the election tribunal, in an apparent effort to apply pressure on authorities to reveal the final outcome.
Nasralla, who heads the left-right Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship coalition and has the backing of ousted former President Manuel Zelaya, had 45.17 percent of the vote. The National Party's Hernandez had 40.21 percent, according to the country's election tribunal, with 57 percent of votes counted.
With Hernandez not yet conceding defeat, a close result could lead to tensions in a poor Central American country that has suffered years of brutal gang crime and drug wars.
After the results were announced, Hernandez reiterated that he had won, and urged supporters to wait for fresh vote counts to come in from rural areas, where he enjoys greater support.
The tribunal did not give a time for when it expected the vote count to be concluded.
On Monday afternoon, Luis Zelaya, the third-placed candidate, said Nasralla was the country's new leader and urged Hernandez to accept defeat. Luis Zelaya is not related to former president Manuel Zelaya.
Hernandez, 49, was the longtime favorite to win the election. He has been credited with lowering the murder rate and accelerating economic growth. But he has also been hurt by accusations of ties to drug and graft-stained financing and claims by opponents he is plotting a power grab.
RISK FOR UNITED STATES?
Washington sees Hernandez as a reliable ally in tackling drug trafficking and gangs, and helping control the flow of migrants to the United States. A victory for newcomer Nasralla would take the United States into unfamiliar territory.
"Now he can back up his anti-corruption positions. Or not," a U.S. official said, noting the U.S. government expects to work "cooperatively in a number of ways" with Nasralla.
The United States has longstanding military ties to Honduras and few ideological allies among the current crop of Central American presidents. In Mexico, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leads opinion polls ahead of next year's presidential election.
Nasralla describes himself as a centrist, who nonetheless "takes the best of the socialist ideology, and not the extremes." He says he supports free markets and views private enterprise as the best way of creating jobs and slowing migration.
"We are going to have good relations with the United States and all countries," he said before the election, adding he was happy to work with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Many believe coalition coordinator Zelaya, who was ousted in 2009 amid concerns he was plotting to adopt socialist policies in Honduras, is the true force behind Nasralla. Although Zelaya is often viewed as a traditional Latin American leftist, Honduras business figures say he is a political opportunist who often reneges on his word.
The United States wrestled with how to handle the coup eight years ago, and Zelaya remains a bogeyman for U.S. officials and many of Honduras' elite.
"We won," Zelaya wrote on Twitter.
The U.S. official said he did not think Hernandez would be able to catch Nasralla in the vote count. He called this "a real stress test for Honduras' democratic institutions and the leadership and character of its political figures."
"This could drag on for weeks," he said.
The official likened the potential upset to the 2016 election of Trump, another entertainer whose campaign resonated with voters disillusioned by establishment politics.
Hernandez's attempt to clinch a second term, which was made possible by a contentious 2015 Supreme Court decision, divided opinion in Honduras. The country is still dealing with the fallout from the 2009 coup, which came about after Zelaya, an ally of late Venezuelan leftist leader Hugo Chavez, proposed a referendum on re-election.
The son of a wealthy landowner, Zelaya nearly returned to political prominence in the 2013 election, when his wife, Xiomara Castro, lost out to Hernandez. Zelaya, who wears a big black mustache and cowboy hats, is a larger than life personality whose supporters fete him for having boosted minimum wages.
Nasralla is one of the country's best known faces as the host of game shows that feature scantily-clad women by his side. With his booming voice and finely coiffed hair, he looked poised to be the latest entertainment star in the Americas to breach the upper echelons of political power.
In Guatemala, former TV comedian Jimmy Morales won the presidency in 2015, but his support has eroded after he clashed with a U.S.-backed anti-graft body probing his family.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Frances Kerry)