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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A new party is challenging the business and political establishment that has ruled Honduras since civilian government took charge a generation ago.

And its candidate is the wife of a former president deposed by those interests in a 2009 coup, a throwback to years past.

Such are politics in Honduras, a longtime U.S. ally that has emerged as the prime symbol of an increasingly violent, dysfunctional Central America and now stands as the main transshipment point for Colombian cocaine headed to the United States.

The presidential election Sunday comes amid a wave of violence in which candidates, judges and journalists have been slain. The bloodshed, combined with the nation’s economic crisis, has propelled more Hondurans to flee northward to the United States. Honduran human-rights activists have been threatened, especially after testifying in Washington, D.C., and the country is deeply polarized. U.S. diplomats fear more bloodletting after the vote, which is expected to be close.

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“People are voting here with much fear,” said German Calix, Honduran national director of the Catholic charity Caritas, “but also hope that maybe after 32 years of constant frustration, maybe this time it will be possible to break the circle of corruption and impunity.”

Hondurans have a fairly stark choice. A leading candidate is Juan Orlando Hernández, the powerful head of Congress who recently established a military-police force to combat the nation’s runaway homicide rate — the world’s highest — which makes Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere.

Last year, 20 people a day were slain in a country of 8.5 million residents.

Hernández, 45, whose tough talk (his campaign slogan: “I will do whatever it takes”) appeals to many, represents one of Honduras’ traditional parties. His National Party and the Liberal Party, both conservative groups, have essentially shared power, year after year, taking turns in the presidency and condemning the country to stilted democratic growth.

The other leading candidate is Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of Manuel Zelaya, the Liberal Party president ousted when he began veering to the left. As head of a new party called Libre (“Free”), she opposes the militarized police force, saying crime can instead be reduced by providing opportunity and social programs. She speaks of “remaking” Honduras by rewriting the constitution, the mission that got her husband in trouble and inspired his opponents to overthrow him.

Critics contend she is merely a front for her husband, who is campaigning vigorously for his wife.

Castro, 54, had a commanding lead early in the race, but public and private polls more recently reflect a statistical tie with Hernandez. It is illegal to publicize polls for a month before the vote.

Another candidate who has polled well is Salvador Nasralla, a popular sportscaster who formed the new Anti-Corruption Party. There is no runoff in the Honduran election system. The traditional Liberal Party is a distant fourth in most polls, which some interpret as punishment for its role in the 2009 coup, undertaken by a group of traditional politicians, businessmen and the military that feared Zelaya was maneuvering to remain in power indefinitely.

Honduras was kicked out of the Organization of American States after the coup, and the U.S. yanked the visas of several prominent Hondurans who supported the removal of Zelaya. An election in 2009 that put Porfirio Lobo, of the National Party, in the presidency only partially restored the country’s international standing.

About 250 international observers from the European Union, the United States and the Organization of American States will monitor the election. The constitution says the victor needs to win only by one vote. There is no runoff, and the electoral tribunal decides whether a recount is necessary.

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