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Guatemalans Go to Polls to Elect New President


In Guatemala, voters are at the polls to select a new president, although recent public opinion polls indicate that no clear winner will emerge and a runoff vote in November is likely. But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from the Central American nation's capital, Guatemala City, many people see the electoral process itself as an important victory.

There were few reports of problems in the first hours of the voting process and that in itself is regarded as an important accomplishment in a nation where political violence is a part of everyday life. In recent weeks there were numerous incidents of election-related violence in which some 50 people died.

The two top contenders in the election are Alvaro Colom, head of the National Unity of Hope, and Otto Perez Molina, a former army general who leads the Patriotic Party. Although Colom is favored to win the most votes in this round, in which 14 candidates are on the ballot, he is likely to fall far short of the more than 50 percent needed to win outright. In the November runoff, polls indicate, he and Perez Molina would be almost tied, with the latter having a slight advantage.

Among the other candidates running in this round is 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, the first woman to run for president in Guatemala. She is also of indigenous Indian origin and is known for dressing in her native garb. But her candidacy has failed to gain much support and even in primarily indigenous zones, most voters favor Colom rather than her. Several candidates from her party were victims of violence in recent weeks, a reminder of the bitter legacy of Guatemala's 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and claimed around 200,000 lives.

Violence of a different sort is the main issue in this election. Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. With more than five thousand murders a year, the nation of 13 million people has one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.

Both of the front-running candidates have promised to fight drug traffickers and other violent criminals, but Colom warns against policies that could take the country back to the rampant civil rights abuses of the past, while Perez Molina advocates a strong hand and use of the military to fight organized crime.

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