Guatemala Elections: Former General Leads Polls for President

Guatemalans shaken by soaring violence must choose between two right leaning candidates to become the country's next president, and as of Sunday, polls show a former general who promises law and order is in the lead.

Polls show Otto Perez Molina, 61, a retired general and former military intelligence director running for the right-wing Patriotic Party, is leading in the country's presidential elections by 10 to 15 points.

Molina is running against Manuel Baldizon, 41, a tycoon-turned-political populist whose proposals include more social programs and zero tolerance on crime, of the Democratic Freedom Revival party.

The polling methods are inadequate. They've failed to capture how between 25 and 30 percent of the people intend to vote.

— Former Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez

Voting appeared to be going peacefully during the day.

Perez and Baldizon are in a runoff after gaining the most votes in the Sept. 11 presidential election, which Perez also won, but not by the required outright majority to for a first-round victory.

But some analysts say there's a disconnect between polls, believed to favor the establishment candidate Perez, and what is really a tight race.

"The polling methods are inadequate," said former Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez, who runs a think tank in Guatemala. "They've failed to capture how between 25 and 30 percent of the people intend to vote."

Baldizon barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago and has risen dramatically since. The businessman has made many promises that some considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup. But other promises are appealing in a country with rampant poverty and crime, including giving workers an extra month's salary a year, reinstating the death penalty and televising executions.

More than half of Guatemalans live in poverty in a nation 14 million overrun by organized crime and Mexican drug cartels. President Alvaro Colom has had to send troops to retake some provinces from the Zetas drug gang, including Baldizon's home state of Peten bordering Mexico.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, a product of gang and cartel violence, along with the legacy of its 1960-1996 civil war in which the army, police and paramilitary are blamed for killed the vast majority of 200,000 victims — most of whom were Mayan.

Perez would be the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala 25 years after the end of brutal military rule. While that concerns some international groups, Guatemala has a young population and many don't remember the war.

Witnesses say hundreds of villages were obliterated by the army's scorched-earth policy. Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide.

He has never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.

Perez's campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and cartels. Both candidates lean to the right after the center-left party of Colom failed to field a candidate. Colom cannot run for re-election.

Perez narrowly lost four years ago to Colom, a leftist who promised to fight crime with social programs, but whom many considered weak. Guatemalans have a history of electing the runner-up in the next presidential election since democracy was restored in 1986, and many feel that it is now Perez's turn after his previous defeat.

The wild card has been the sudden popularity of Baldizon, who the traditional ruling class in Guatemala has painted as inept.

One of his more surprising supporters is the left-leaning Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who ran for president but barely had a showing. She urged her supporters, mainly Guatemala's indigenous and poor, to vote for Baldizon. Many say the rural poor will simply choose not to vote, and a low turnout favors Perez.

"No vote is a vote for the past," she said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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