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Ex-general set to win Guatemala presidential vote

A retired army general who promises a “firm hand” against rising gang violence and served during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war was set to win a first round presidential vote.

Conservative Otto Perez Molina led by some 20 points over his nearest rival but it was uncertain if he would manage the more than 50 percent necessary to avoid a run-off in November.

“We’re betting that Guatemalan people want to finish this election in the first round,” urged the 60-year-old as he voted in the capital, Guatemala City.

Politically-targeted violence had plagued the race in Central America’s most populous nation, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Improving basic conditions for the more than half of its 14 million people who live in poverty was a major concern.

“We hope that the new president has a good spirit, and will give us more time with more support for good harvests so that we have food,” said 60-year-old Lucrecia Tepet, in the mountain town of San Juan Sacatepequez where she voted.

Four years after narrowly losing to current President Alvaro Colom, Perez focused his multi-million-dollar campaign for the Patriotic Party (PP) on cracking down on crime, using a logo of a closed fist.

Perez represented the army in 1996 at the peace accord signing and has denied accusations that rights abuses took place under his command during the civil war, in which some 200,000 died.

Four opinion polls published this week gave Perez a lead of more than 20 percentage points, with predictions of between 42.6 and just under 50 percent.

Perez will likely face a run-off vote against Manuel Baldizon, 41, a conservative, wealthy businessman who wants the death penalty to be reinstated.

Among the 10 candidates, Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous rights activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the only leftist. She was predicted to win less than two percent.

Center-left, ruling party candidate Sandra Torres was disqualified, despite divorcing President Colom in an attempt to legally run for office.

Colom, who could only serve one term, broke with half a century of domination by the ultra-conservative right when he beat Perez in the second round in 2007.

However, he struggled with his efforts to tackle the country’s poverty, malnutrition and violence crises with limited means and a weak majority in Congress.

Violence has meanwhile crept toward civil war levels as homegrown street gangs have been joined by Mexico’s notorious Zetas drug gang in recent years.

Guatemala, which borders Mexico, is located on major drug trafficking routes between South America and the United States and has a murder rate of some 18 per day.

Forty-two percent of the killings are blamed on drug gangs, including several gruesome attacks by the Zetas in jungle regions near the border with Mexico.

Some 7.3 million Guatemalans were eligible to vote for president and vice president, 158 lawmakers and hundreds of municipal officials.

As voting began to close at 6:00 pm (0000 GMT), electoral authorities said participation had been “acceptable” and there had been isolated “incidents,” including the brief abduction of electoral officials in Nahuala, some 105 miles (170 kilometers) west of the capital.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) planned to release a statement around 9:00 pm (0300 GMT), while the first official results were expected early Monday.

Filed in: World News

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