TEGUCIGALPA: Honduras is going into elections on Sunday that, if voter surveys are right, will see current President Juan Orlando Hernandez given a new four-year mandate -- despite a one-term limit in the constitution.
His conservative National Party contends that a 2015 Supreme Court ruling voided that restriction. But the opposition disputes that, saying the court does not have the power to overrule the constitution.
Hernandez's two main challengers -- from a field of 10 -- warn that Hernandez is using his sway over Honduran institutions, especially the electoral tribunal and the army, to prepare a fraudulent poll.
No credible voter intention surveys have been published in nearly two months, but the last ones in September credited Hernandez with a sizeable lead over closest rivals Salvador Nasralla, a leftist TV anchor-turned-politician, and Luis Zelaya, from the right-leaning Liberal Party.
"President Juan Orlando Hernandez will likely be reelected on 26 November and his National Party will probably expand its share of seats in congress, but fall short of a simple majority, forcing the president to continue working with the Liberal Party to advance his agenda," the New York-based Eurasia Group said in a briefing note.
Whoever wins will be in charge of one of the poorest countries in Latin America. It is also one of the most dangerous, as part of the "Northern Triangle" -- along with Guatemala and El Salvador -- that is rife with gang violence, drug trafficking and corruption.
Hernandez has won some respect for cracking down on gangs through stepped-up security initiatives, but murder and extortion are still very high.
- Gang-run neighborhoods -
In fact, residents in gang-run neighborhoods told AFP they have little option but to bend to the will of the criminal outfits.
"The truth is, all my childhood friends are in the gang," said one 20-year-old man in the Santa Maria district of the capital, Tegucigalpa, controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang.
Calling himself Brian -- a borrowed name to avoid gang reprisals -- he said he had not joined MS-13's ranks.
But some of his neighbors described him as a small-time MS-13 collaborator.
Despite high-profile raids by soldiers and police, "the gangs continue to control city neighborhoods, extorting small businesses and controlling who goes in or out," said Migdonia Ayestas, coordinator of the Violence Observatory at Honduras' National University.
"The success in the fight against extortionists has only been with those directly doing the shakedowns, and those who really benefit have not been captured," she said.
However, under Hernandez, the murder rate has dropped from nearly 60 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016 to a projected rate of around 45 this year -- although that still hovers far above the global average of 5.3 given by the World Bank.
For Marco Antonio Lainez, a market flower seller, "the country is better than it was four years ago."
He added: "We hope that he (Hernandez) will be re-elected."
- Democracy in 'danger'? -
More than 35,000 troops and police officers are ready to be deployed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to ensure security during Sunday's election -- which will see six million voters called out to decide the race.
The Eurasia Group predicted that, while a Hernandez victory would generate "some protests, the election will be held without major incident given the presence of international observers."
But some Honduran analysts warned that the situation was more volatile.
Hernandez' determination to stay in power made for "a complicated election," said Victor Meza, of the Honduras Documentation Center.
"Democracy is in danger the moment that presidential authoritarianism starts to be strengthened," he said.
On top of the presidential election, Sunday's polls will also decide who will fill the duties of the three vice presidential posts, and the 128 seats in the single-chamber congress -- as well as Honduras' 20 representatives in the Central American Parliament, and authorities in 298 municipalities.