Dictator's 'puppet' heads for poll defeat

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

Alvaro Arzu, a conservative 49-year-old travel agent and former mayor, is expected to be elected President of Guatemala in tomorrow's run-off ballot.

Opinion polls showed Mr Arzu, of the National Advancement Party (PAN), leading Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) by between 6 and 9 per cent. The winner will begin a five-year term when he takes the presidential sash from the incumbent President, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, on 14 January.

The victor's immediate priority will be to try to end a 30-year guerrilla war that has divided the population and led to widespread human rights abuses. He will also aim to halt a wave of kidnappings and a general sense of insecurity.

Mr Portillo, a 44-year-old economist and lawyer, is widely seen as a "front man" for his party's leader, General Efrain Rios Montt, the former military dictator notorious for his "scorched earth" policy against Indian villages he blamed for hiding left-wing guerrillas in the Eighties. He was barred from running himself.

Mr Arzu, twice mayor of Guatemala City, easily defeated Mr Portillo and 17 other candidates in the first round on 12 November but fell short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. Mr Arzu scored 36 per cent to Mr Portillo's 22 per cent.

Mr Arzu was reckoned to have won a heated TV debate this week, in which each man assailed the other's character. Mr Arzu said Mr Portillo had killed someone while in exile in Mexico; Mr Portillo said he had done so in self-defence.

Perhaps because both candidates are conservative and there is little to choose between their policies, half of Guatemala's 3.7 million voters did not take part in the last poll. A higher turn-out this time, with an estimated 15 per cent of voters still undecided yesterday, could give Mr Portillo the chance of an upset.