TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez called for unity on Saturday after a bitterly disputed election last year as he was sworn in for a second term, while police skirmished with protesters in the streets.
Hernandez, a conservative supported by the United States, appeared set to lose the Nov. 26 election until an abrupt halt in the vote count and a shift in the results took victory away from his center-left rival, Salvador Nasralla.
Allegations of fraud sparked protests that killed more than 30 people in the impoverished Central American country, which has also been plagued by battles between security forces, local gangs and drug traffickers.
As Hernandez spoke at a stadium at his swearing-in, supporters and troops chanted “unity” and waved the blue and white Honduran flag.
“If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand,” he said, quoting the New Testament. “I promise to carry out a process of reconciliation among all Hondurans.”
On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators clashed with troops and police, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd that had gathered a couple of miles from the stadium where Hernandez took office.
Nasralla, a sportscaster and game show host, and his ally Manuel Zelaya, a former leftist president who was overthrown in a 2009 coup, led demonstrators on Saturday.
Antonio Tejada, a 33-year-old laborer at the protests, said Hernandez “had stolen the presidency against the will of the people.”
“We will keep fighting until he is out of power,” he said.
The Organization of American States said the election was marred by irregularities and called for a new vote.
But the result was eventually ratified by the country’s electoral tribunal and both Mexico and the United States backed the incumbent.
After police dispersed the mass rally in the capital, smaller groups of protesters moved into the narrow streets of the central district where they threw stones at security forces who fired back rounds of tear gas.
Security forces were sent to break down blockades on highways mounted by demonstrators in four parts of the country and five people had been arrested after a tractor trailer was set on fire, a police spokesman said.
Following a contentious decision by the Supreme Court in 2015, Hernandez is the first president to be re-elected since the end of military rule nearly four decades ago.
Hernandez has pledged to maintain a hard-line strategy criticized by human rights groups in his fight against the country’s gangs.
He was applauded by investors in his first term for cutting the deficit and boosting economic growth and he pledged to bring peace to Honduras and promote prosperity on Saturday.
About 60 percent of Hondurans live in poverty and much of the country is terrorized by gang violence, driving tens of thousands of people a year to flee for the United States.
Additonal reporting by Diego Ore in Mexico City; Writing by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Bill Trott and Susan Thomas