TEGUCIGALPA, March 13 (Reuters) - The left-wing party of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya on Tuesday named his wife as its presidential candidate in elections next year.
The new Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), which is supported by unions, farmers and women's groups, said it would nominate Xiomara Castro to run for the top job in the small central American nation, which is racked by criminal violence.
Although the former Honduran first lady is a relative novice to politics, opinion polls have shown her running first or second in voters' preferences.
The Honduran army, acting on a court order with backing from Congress, whisked the left-leaning Zelaya out of the country in June 2009 after he tried to hold a referendum seen by the opposition as an attempt to extend his term as president.
The former president, who was fond of wearing cowboy hats while in office, was in a buoyant mood as his party signed up for the race.
"The registration of our party marks a departure from our past and brings hope for the Honduran people," Zelaya told a crowd gathered outside the electoral tribunal.
Zelaya returned last May to Honduras, an impoverished nation with the highest homicide rate in the world, according to figures published by the United Nations.
Last month, more than 350 people died there in one of the world's worst prison fires.
The 2009 ousting of Zelaya was condemned around the world as an anti-democratic flashback to the region's Cold War era past of dictators, coups and military rule.
So far his wife's closest poll rival in the November 2013 election is sports commentator Salvador Nasralla of the Anti-Corruption party. Nasralla, a civil engineer of Palestinian descent, quickly gained popularity thanks to his appearances on game shows, where he often appears with scantily clad models.
The two hopefuls are also likely to face retired general Romero Vasquez, who led the coup that ousted Zelaya, and whose registration at the electoral court is expected later this month. (Reporting By Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Eric Walsh)