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Guatemalans Vote Peacefully in Presidential Election - 2003-11-09

Guatemalans are peacefully forming long lines in polling centers around the country to vote for the nation's next president. Voters are also selecting a new Congress and hundreds of local offices.

This has been what some in Guatemala regard as the most violent campaign period in recent Guatemalan history, and it has made many Guatemalans apprehensive about how the long-awaited election day would unfold.

More than 4,000 election observers are in place across the country to ensure voting is free and fair. Ballots are encrypted to keep them from being swapped, and vehicles delivering voting materials to polling places were tracked by satellite to avoid unscheduled stops.

Swiss ambassador and election observer Maria Liessner was at an upper middle-class neighborhood polling center and said she feels confident about the process. "There has been a lot of conflict and violence in this campaign. As far as we can understand the situation is under control. I am sure there will be some disturbances here and there, but I think the elections most probably, that is my hope and conviction, will be fairly peaceful," she said.

At the same voting center, ruling party candidate and former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt showed up to vote in the first half-hour the center was open.

After depositing his ballots, Mr. Rios Montt left the center amid the cheers of some of his supporters. He is accused of human rights violations during his brief rule in the 1980s.

The general, as he is known here, was trailing a distant third in pre-election polls. One candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the votes to win, and the pre-election polls predicted there will be a runoff between former Guatemala City Mayor Oscar Berger and center-left candidate Alvaro Colom in December.

The election is only the second since 1996 peace accords ended 36 years of civil war. President Alfonso Portillo, a member of Rios Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front party, won the last elections in 1999, but can not seek a second consecutive term.

Results are expected late in the day.