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General Rios Montt Favored to Advance in Guatemala Presidential Election - 2003-11-07

Many observers in Guatemala and abroad will be watching closely to see how retired General Efrain Rios Montt fares in presidential elections Sunday. Human rights activists accuse Rios Montt of ordering the genocide of Maya Indians during his short, but iron-fisted dictatorship in the 1980s. He is the candidate for the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front, known here as the FRG.

Rios Montt supporters at this Guatemala City rally are hoping that he will be one of the top two vote getters in Sunday's elections. With none of the 11 candidates anywhere near the 50 percent mark in opinion polls, it is nearly certain that the top-two candidates will go on to a runoff in December.

Polls indicate the 77-year-old evangelical preacher and long-time congressional president is in third place. General Rios Montt asked the crowd at a rally whether they believe the polls. General Rios Montt's fans are not the only ones who think he stands a chance of advancing into a second-place spot. A broad range of political analysts, including some of his staunchest critics, think he could too.

"I strongly believe that Rios Montt can make it to the second round," said Frank La Rue, the lead human rights observer for the Guatemalan electoral observation mission.

"The other thing is that the FRG seems to be determined to impose Rios Montt, in a good way or a bad way," he added.

About 39 percent of the population, opinion polls say, share La Rue's fear that dirty tactics could be used to push General Rios Montt into the second place slot.

These fears of irregularities have shadowed the entire election process ever since July, when a high court, packed with General Rios Montt's allies, approved his candidacy, despite a constitutional ban on former dictators running for president.

Opponents of General Rios Montt have denounced what they say are attempts to buy votes in the countryside. They say government officials are conditioning public works projects on votes for General Rios Montt.

People are expressing fears that authorities will stand by and allow gangs and pro-Rios Montt mobs to wreak havoc in the capital on Sunday to prevent people from going to the polls. City dwellers are General Rios Montt's firmest opposition.

Moises Benamor is the deputy chief of the Organization of American States electoral observation mission.

"We have always emphasized that violence and confrontation have been part of this campaign," he says. "There are enough arguments for us to be very attentive on election day, to make sure that there is the necessary liberty and security in the process," he said.

But General Rios Montt does have a real support base, despite his dark past. His authoritarian-populist discourse is increasingly popular in a region of fledgling democracies. Polls show many Latin Americans are growing impatient with democracy's failure to guarantee more jobs and less crime. Many in the region are yearning for stronger-handed rulers.

Nora Martinez went to a recent Rios Montt rally in a poor and crime-ridden Guatemala City neighborhood.

"General Rios Montt is the only one who can save Guatemala," she said, adding, "he is the only one who can save Guatemala from the hands of the powerful and the poverty that exists."

Over 20 percent of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty and dramatic income disparities persist here between the rich and the poor.