Former general set to win Guatemalan presidency


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The Independent US

A right-wing former army general was poised to become Guatemala’s next president this evening, as the public cast its votes in an election which has been dominated by spiralling crime and drug-related violence.

Otto Pérez Molina was leading rival Manuel Baldizón by between ten and twenty points in final opinion polls. If elected, he will become the first military man to lead the country since the end of its notoriously-brutal 35-year civil war, in 1996. 

Guatemala is one of the Western hemisphere's poorest nations: half the population lives below the poverty line, a third are illiterate, and malnutrition affects 49 percent of its children, according to the UN. 

But the economy has taken a back seat this election, thanks to a spike in violent crime blamed on the arrival of drug gangs from neighbouring Mexico. The murder rate has doubled since 2006, making it one of the five most dangerous countries in the world. And 98 percent of killings go unsolved. 

With this in mind, the 61-year-old Pérez Molina has adopted the slogan “mano dura” or “tough hand,” and a campaign symbol of an iron fist. His headline pledges include expanding the police, moving the army into trouble zones, and building more high-security prisons. 

Voters seem sufficiently-reassured by the tough rhetoric to persistent concerns about Pérez Molina's military past. There have been claims that troops under his command were responsible for several of the atrocities carried out by the Guatemalan army during the Civil War, in which roughly 200,000 civilians died. 

Molina yesterday described such allegations as "totally false." He claims instead to have been a progressive figure within the hardline armed forces, helping to broker peace accords that were signed with left-wing revolutionary guerrilla groups in 1996. 

The biggest threat to his chances may instead be public disenchantment with the entire political establishment.  

Despite fine weather, a 48-hour ban on alcohol, and a persistent advertisement campaigns aimed at persuading Guatemalans to vote, many voters say they have little faith in either candidate. As a result, they intend to either stay away from the ballot box or deliberately spoil their papers.  

"Although Molina is clearly ahead, we are noticing a very high rate of abstentionism so far today," said Antonio Barrios, political editor of the Prensa Libre , Guatemala's newspaper of record. "If that leads to a low turnout, there's a chance that could make the result somewhat less predictable than we previously expected."