By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The result of Honduras' presidential election was still in limbo early on Tuesday, even after initial results suggested a flamboyant TV host was on course for a surprise victory over the U.S.-friendly incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernandez.
One of the poorest nations in the Americas, Honduras has been blighted by years of gang violence, giving it one of the world's highest murder rates. However, Hernandez made inroads in tackling the problem and was expected to win before the vote.
With about 70 percent of ballots counted, TV entertainer Salvador Nasralla was leading by a margin of five points, election official Marcos Ramiro Lobo told Reuters on Monday afternoon, by which time results updates had ground to a halt.
The lead was too large for Hernandez to overcome, Lobo said, without saying what percentage of the vote Nasralla secured. An initial tally encompassing more than half of ballots early on Monday gave Nasralla 45 percent and Hernandez 40 percent.
Later on Monday, David Matamoros, president of the electoral tribunal, said it might be ready to deliver more definitive results by Thursday, a gap that risks stoking tension in a violent country known for electoral strife.
Nasralla, a self-described centrist, headed a left-right coalition called the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, and claimed victory on Monday - as did Hernandez.
Nasralla is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup after he proposed a referendum on his re-election. The dramatic comeback by the one-time leftist risks fuelling concern in Washington.
Breaking with tribunal colleagues, Lobo said Nasralla appeared certain to win, signaling that in-house experts at the electoral body regarded his lead as "irreversible."
Hernandez was credited with lowering the murder rate and boosting the economy, but he was also hurt by accusations of ties to illicit, drug-related financing that he denies.
His bid for a second term, which was made possible by a 2015 Supreme Court decision on term limits, divided opinion.
Washington sees Hernandez as a dependable ally in tackling drug trafficking and gangs, as well as in helping to control the flow of migrants to the United States. Nasralla at the helm would take the United States into unfamiliar territory.
Many believe coalition coordinator Zelaya is the true force behind Nasralla. Although Zelaya is viewed as a traditional Latin American leftist, Honduras business figures say he is a political opportunist and questioned his reliability.
(Editing by Dave Graham; and Clarence Fernandez)