Rival factions of Honduras' newly-elected Congress held duelling first sessions Tuesday as a split in president-elect Xiomara's Castro's party deepened two days before her swearing-in.
With the United States watching closely, about a third of the 50 MPs of Castro's leftist Libre party pressed on with a rebellion that could threaten her hold on Congress.
Castro needs a firm majority to implement her anti-corruption and political reform platform in a country battered by poverty, migration and drug-trafficking.
On Sunday, the Libre rebels – with backing from right-wing parties hitherto in control of the legislature – named one of their own, Jorge Calix, as Congress president in a ceremony at a private venue.
In the legislature, meanwhile, Castro loyalists nominated Luis Redondo of Libre's alliance partner, the Saviour Party of Honduras (PSH), as had been agreed before the election.
The Libre rebels broke ranks because they insist Congress should be led by the party with the most members – Libre has 50 deputies compared to just 10 for the Saviour party.
Sunday's events came just days after lawmakers came to blows in the legislative chamber over who should lead Congress – chosen last November in general elections won by Castro and Libre – for its four-year term.
Calix and the other rebels were then expelled from the party, but remain lawmakers for now.
Call for calm
Castro has recognised Redondo and invited him to preside over her swearing-in on Thursday, an event that Argentina's Vice-Preisdent Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is due to attend.
Among the other dignatories expected to attend is US Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Castro has branded Calix a "traitor" doing the bidding of entrenched right-wing politicians opposed to her vow to clean house.
On Tuesday, Redondo presided over an opening session of part of the Congress in the legislature building.
In parallel, and via Zoom, Calix presided over an alternative session with almost 20 rebel Libre members as well as MPs of the National and Liberal parties.
The Calix meeting drew more lawmakers – over 70, which is a majority of the 128-member Congress.
Numbers for Redondo were bolstered by substitute lawmakers standing in in the absence of the rebels attending the Calix gathering.
"We call on political actors to remain calm, to engage in dialogue, to refrain from violence and provocative rhetoric," US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Monday.
'We will be talking'
US Vice President Kamala Harris is due to attend Thursday's swearing-in, as is Argentina's Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has had ties with Castro since 2009.
But the uncertainty in Congress has created a legitimacy crisis around Castro, with analysts saying the ceremony could be delayed.
Redondo claimed Monday that "someone from the American Embassy contacted me, and we will be talking to them."
Honduran media reported that Calix also received a call from the US Embassy – which he did not confirm.
Dissident congressman Yahve Sabillon told local media that representatives for Calix and Redondo had met to seek an agreement.
AFP could not independently verify this information.
Castro won election on November 28 to become the first woman president of Honduras and end 12 years of right-wing National Party (PN) rule.
She is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, a former president who was deposed in a 2009 coup supported by the military, business elites and the political right.
Castro's victory involved an alliance with the PSH, which will see its leader Salvador Nasralla named vice-president.
Calix had promised Sunday to work for Castro's programme, in spite of her rejection of his nomination.
"We have a communication with this dissident group. They are all friends. We are always talking to them and looking for ways out," Zelaya, coordinator of Libre, told AFP.
"Logically we support Luis Redondo, but we are always open to seeking integration and dialogue," he added.