(Recasts with exit poll)
TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 26 (Reuters) - An exit poll from a private TV network forecast victory for Honduras' U.S.-friendly leader in his bid for a second term on Sunday, eight years after he supported a coup to remove a previous president who flirted with the idea of re-election.
The poll by network Televicentro gave President Juan Orlando Hernandez 43.93 percent of the vote, with Salvador Nasralla, who helms a broad left-right coalition called the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, at 34.70 percent. Hernandez does not need a majority of votes to win.
The Honduras election tribunal is due to give its first official count later on Sunday.
Hernandez, 49, of the center-right National Party, has lowered a sky-high murder rate, accelerated economic growth and cut the deficit since he took office in 2014, and was allowed to run for re-election thanks to a 2015 Supreme Court decision that overturned a constitutional ban on re-election.
Critics warn that Hernandez, a staunch U.S. ally on fighting drug gangs and migration, is tightening his grip on power, using a pliant Supreme Court and electoral tribunal to clear a path for his re-election bid in one of the Americas' poorest, most violent countries.
"I want to say to all Hondurans that we are building democracy," Hernandez said on Sunday at a news conference in Tegucigalpa. He urged his supporters, bedecked in blue and shouting: "Long Live Juan Orlando," to back his candidacy and secure a majority in the 128-seat Congress.
Opposition members say the second-term campaign is illegal and that they will not accept results from an election tribunal they accuse of being co-opted by Hernandez until they conduct their own vote count.
Opinion polls suggest Hernandez, born into a rural family of 17 siblings, will benefit from a splintered opposition and savvy political moves to clinch a historic second term and strengthen his militarized assault on gangs. Voters will also pick lawmakers.
Hernandez says he will build roads and bridges with public and private money to lure foreign investment, create 600,000 jobs and help lift economic growth to above 6 percent.
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, many were thankful for a lower crime rate and seem willing to overlook Hernandez's consolidation of power, even though he supported the 2009 coup that ousted Zelaya for proposing a referendum on re-election.
"Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Ada Solorzano, a 57-year-old nurse said of Hernandez. "During his time in office, he's fought the gangs and the drug traffickers and he's improved the employment situation. We know he will continue the war on crime and that he plans to create more work."
Another Tegucigalpa resident, Klenia Corea, 26, said she, her family and friends were all voting for Nasralla, citing a lack of jobs for young people and the president's grip on law enforcement.
"He's got all the police," said Corea's mother, Yadira Salgado, 61. "He's got it all tied up."
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)