By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran presidential candidate leading after a partial count of votes said he would review whether to keep a base stationed with U.S. troops if he wins the election, but also promised to deepen security co-operation.
Honduras has been slow to release the results of Sunday's election. Although U.S.-friendly President Juan Orlando Hernandez had been tipped to win, partial results show an upset, with gregarious television star Salvador Nasralla leading.
One of the poorest nations in the Americas with one of the world's highest murder rates, Honduras has been blighted with years of gang violence. Nasralla has tapped into widespread disillusionment about the country's future, particularly among exasperated young voters.
But his win is not yet certain. As results started flowing on Tuesday evening, Nasralla's original five-point lead had narrowed to under 3 percent, with about two-thirds of ballot boxes counted.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, the 64-year-old Nasralla said, if he did triumph, he would talk to the United States about 500 U.S. troops stationed at the Soto Cano air base, also known as Palmerola, two hours' drive from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
"I need to see what benefit there is for Honduras from having a base like Palmerola," Nasralla said.
The U.S. presence at the base was established in the 1980s to help the United States in its fight against left-wing insurgencies in Central America.
In 2008, former President Manuel Zelaya said he would turn the base into a civilian airport to serve the coffee-exporting country of 9 million people.
A year later, Zelaya was ousted in a coup that his ally, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said was orchestrated from the base. U.S. officials denied any involvement in the coup.
Nasralla, a self-described centrist, said he would deepen security ties with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, and that Honduras would remain the United States' best ally in Central America.
"When the United States passes me its list of people it wants to extradite ... I'm not even going to look at it. I'm simply going to sign it and give the order," he said. "I'm willing to extradite ex-presidents, lawmakers, ministers."
Honduras is riddled with corruption that breeds on rampant impunity, drug trafficking and gang violence.
U.S. officials were aware of his economic and social policy positions, he added.
"I'm certain that I won't have any problems with the United States," he said.
The United States has longstanding military ties to Honduras and few ideological allies among the current crop of Central American presidents. In Mexico, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leads opinion polls for next year's presidential election.
Nasralla said that Zelaya would be an influential person in his government and that the former president's wife, Xiomara Castro, would serve as his vice-president.
Zelaya, widely viewed as a traditional Latin American leftist due to his previous friendship with Chavez, commands considerable concern in Washington. Many observers believe him to be the true power behind Nasralla's coalition.
Nasralla said concerns were unfounded, and that he would not pursue a close relationship with Venezuela.
But he also hinted that Zelaya could return to the presidency in the future.
He said he did not want to change new rules allowing presidential re-election, apparently contradicting his previous opposition. His alliance was formed specifically to block Hernandez's bid for a second term.
Nasralla said that he would not run for a second term, but that Zelaya could choose to run in 2022 and benefit from the lack of term limits.
Ironically, Zelaya was ousted in 2009 after he proposed a referendum on those re-election rules.
Earlier on Tuesday, Hernandez told supporters he still expected to win the election, but urged people to wait for the official results to come through.
Given the nearly two day lag in releasing results, a Hernandez victory would be certain to enrage the opposition, and could spark tensions.
"They're doing everything they can to take away our triumph," Nasralla wrote on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, as the lead started narrowing.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Dave Graham and Rosalba O'Brien)