Guatemala presidential vote headed for Nov. runoff

Associated Press
Guatemala's presidential candidate of the Patriotic Party Otto Perez Molina casts his vote at a polling station during the country's presidential elections in Guatemala City, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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Guatemala's presidential candidate of the Patriotic Party Otto Perez Molina casts his vote at a polling …

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala's leading presidential candidates are headed for a November runoff after a retired general who had a commanding lead in the polls failed to win 50 percent of the vote.

With 95 percent of the polling stations reporting Monday, preliminary results showed Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party with 36 percent support, followed by businessman Manuel Baldizon with 24 percent and Eduardo Suger with 16 percent.

"We are going to double our efforts, now that we are in the second round," Perez said after learning he would be in the runoff.

In pre-election polls, Perez, who promised to get tough on Guatemala's rampant crime, had the support of up to 48 percent of voters. Baldizon had 18 percent and Suger 10 percent. All are right-leaning. Any candidate needed more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid the Nov. 6 runoff. The new president takes office in January.

But Perez garnered far less, as Baldizon's support increased in the weeks leading up to the election.

Baldizon's support also may have been lower in the polls because people were embarrassed to say they would vote for him, according to former Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez, who heads a political think tank in Guatemala.

Baldizon, a tycoon-turned-political populist, made many promises that some considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup. But other promises were appealing in a country with rampant poverty, including a pledge to boost salaries and social programs, to employ the death penalty, now rarely used, and to televise executions. Gutierrez said that greater support than expected for Suger also cut into Perez's lead, but that those votes will likely go to Perez in the runoff.

Perez would be the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala after the end of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s.

A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, 93 percent of them by state forces and paramilitary groups. Still, many credit Perez with playing a key role in the march toward democracy, including negotiating the 1996 peace accords that ended the conflict.

Campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and Mexican drug cartels operating in the lawless border region that have given Guatemala one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere. The candidates almost all lean to the right after the center-left party of outgoing President Alvaro Colom failed to field a candidate.

Violence is epidemic in this nation of 14.7 million people, and organized crime has overrun many regions. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000, according to a report by the World Bank.

Seventy-five percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the indigenous and rural poor who were most hurt by the war are also bearing the brunt of the current violence.

Among a field of 10 candidates, the only leftist running is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, who is polling with little more than 2 percent.

Perez's strongest opponent was barred from running.

Sandra Torres, Colom's ex-wife, was declared ineligible by the Supreme Court because the constitution bars family members of the president from running. Torres divorced Colom before declaring her candidacy, but the courts saw the move as a maneuver to evade the law.

Guatemalan political scientist Renzo Rosal said the exit of Torres from the race probably resulted in more votes for Baldizon.

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Associated Press writer Juan Carlos Llorca contributed to this report.

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