GUATEMALA CITY – A conservative ex-general and a right-wing businessman will face off as they vie to be Guatemala’s next president, after finishing ahead in the first round, officials said Monday.
The top two candidates, conservative former general Otto Pérez Molina, who served in the nation’s “dirty war” in the 1980s, and businessman Manuel Baldizón will go toe-to-toe in a Nov. 6 second-round vote to determine who will lead this impoverished country, the most populous in Central America.
An ex-army general who has vowed to exercise a “firm hand” against rising gang violence, Pérez, who headed the Guatemalan military during the 36-year civil war, enjoys a commanding lead following Sunday’s vote.
Pérez garnered 36 percent of the ballots, compared to 23 percent for Baldizón.
The former military leader needed to clear 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, but told supporters his healthy lead over his main rival was nearly as decisive as an outright win.
“We have gained a historic advantage,” Pérez, 60, told supporters after the tally from Sunday’s election was announced.
“Normally leading candidates are separated by four to six points. We are much farther ahead than that,” he said.
Some 7.3 million Guatemalans were eligible to vote for president and vice president, 158 lawmakers and hundreds of municipal officials.
Electoral authorities said participation had been “acceptable,” although slower than expected and marred by isolated “incidents.”
But election observers from the Organization of American States raised “great concern” about the delay in releasing preliminary results by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Octavio Bordón, the mission’s chief, said it was unclear whether the delays were due to the large volume of votes or poor training of election personnel.
Bordón, while generally satisfied with the conduct of the elections, deplored isolated incidents in which people were brought in from other jurisdictions to vote, roadblocks and vote buying.
In one town, San Miguel Pochuta, residents reacted to the reelection of the town’s mayor by setting fire to the electoral board and part of the city hall, said Erick de León, governor of the Chimaltenango department.
Politically targeted violence plagued the race in Guatemala, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Improving basic conditions for the more than half of the 14 million people who live in poverty was a major concern. Two million Guatemalans daily suffer from malnutrition and 30 percent of the population is considered virtually illiterate.
Four years after narrowly losing to current President Álvaro Colom, Pérez focused his multimillion-dollar campaign for the Patriotic Party (PP) on law and order in crime-ridden Guatemala and his campaign logo showed a closed fist.
Pérez 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, which saw some 200,000 Guatemalans killed.
Four separate opinion polls this week gave Pérez a lead of more than 20 percentage points, with predictions of between 42.6 and just under 50 percent.
Baldizón, 41, is a conservative, wealthy businessman who wants the death penalty reinstated.
Among the 10 candidates, Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous rights activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the only leftist. She was expected to win less than two percent of the vote.
Center-left, ruling party candidate Sandra Torres was disqualified, despite divorcing incumbent President Colom in an attempt to circumvent nepotism rules that forbade from running for office as a presidential spouse.
Colom, who could only serve one term, broke with a half-century-old tradition of ultra-conservative rule when he beat Pérez in second-round balloting in 2007.
However, he faltered in efforts to tame the country’s poverty, malnutrition and violence, hampered by limited means and a weak majority in Congress.
Violence, meanwhile, has 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 some 18 murders each 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.