The homemade bomb exploded outside the church in this sweaty Central American capital as the choir was singing hymns in a lively Evangelical mass. When the parishioners finally paused from their verses, they thanked God that the device had caused no injuries and had hardly even damaged the BMW car belonging to one of the faithful, under which it was placed. The bomb, made of a tiny amount of C4 plastic explosive, was designed to scare rather than scar, police said like dozens of similar bombs that have detonated across Honduras as the nation prepares to vote on Sunday in the first election since its President Manuel Zelaya was forced out in a military coup in June.
The blasts for which no one has claimed responsibility are one more sign that the republic of coffee and banana plantations is in no condition to hold an election, says Zelaya, who has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy since sneaking back into the country in September. With the coup's de facto government muzzling the Honduran media, cracking down on protests and locking up dissidents, a fair vote is impossible, Zelaya argues. "This is the first time in history that the executioners are being allowed to oversee a so-called transition back to democracy," he told TIME by telephone from inside the embassy. (Soldiers surrounding the building stop journalists from going in.) The Stetson-wearing leftist said he was especially disappointed with the Obama administration for recognizing the ballot, after previously condemning the coup. "The United States had a good position and then it weakened," he said. "It lost its way."
However, the new presidential candidates, election officials and an increasing number of foreign governments argue that Honduras has to move on, even if in imperfect circumstances. One of the latest figures to recognize the ballot is Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who had overseen talks to try and get Zelaya back into the presidential palace. With those attempts apparently failing, sanctions and isolation of Honduras now will only punish an already poor country, Arias said. "Why do we want to make Honduras into the Burma of Central America? Why do we want a second Hurricane Mitch?" he told CNN.
On the Honduran streets, people expressed mixed feelings about the vote. Shopkeeper Nelson Hernandez said he had liked Zelaya but now intends to cast his ballot for Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, the center-right timber magnate who is leading the polls. "We need security in this country and I think Pepe can give us that," he said. In second place is businessman Elvin Santos, who is a member of Zelaya's Liberal Party but is a vocal critic of the ousted president. (Zelaya himself could not run even if he was in power, as presidents are restricted to one term.) Three other candidates are also on the ballot but are not given a serious chance of winning. Office worker Walter Garcia said he won't vote for any of them, as a protest. "Why should I vote if the president I elect can be taken away at gun point? he said.
Others said they would stay at home for safety. Honduras is far calmer than in first weeks following the coup, when soldiers and police fought pitched battles with protesters and a curfew locked down the country at night. The pro-Zelaya marches of tens of thousands have dissipated, leaving only a few hundred die-hard supporters chanting in the central plaza. But many people are wary that with the election, violence will flare again. And a steady stream of bombs, while causing no deaths, have been found outside government buildings, on buses and even in the walls of school houses. The de-facto government blames them on the pro-Zelaya resistance, but the ousted president denies any link, saying they could be part of a dirty war by the coup leaders.
With soldiers protecting voting booths throughout the country, election officials insist the polls will be safe and are using regular TV bulletins to urge people to vote. All sides say the turnout will be a key factor in legitimizing the government, with leading candidate Lobo promising that participation will be higher than it is in American elections, while Zelaya predicts turnout will be the lowest in Honduran history. While calling for voters to stay away, the ousted president also voices concern for his own future. Although he still has a slim chance of being brought back to power before the newly elected president takes office in January, he confronts charges of treason filed against him by the current government an accusation that could see him spending the rest of his life behind bars. "We need to have an amnesty overseen by the international community," he said. "The imprisonments and killings only serve to terrorize the Honduran people. We cannot rebuild democracy with people incarcerated."