Polls have opened early in Guatemala’s runoff presidential election in which a retired general and former military intelligence officer is leading in opinions polls that have pitted him against a tycoon turned political populist who is promising to curb crime.
Otto Perez Molina, 61, who is running for the conservative Patriotic Party, has at least 10 to 15 points ahead of Manuel Baldizon, 41, of the Democratic Freedom Revival party.
The elections are being held against a backdrop of crime in the Central American nation with the unfortunate distinction of having the highest murder rates in the world.
Perez and Baldizon are in a run-off after gaining the most votes in the September 11 presidential elections, which Perez also won, but without the required outright majority for a first-round victory.
Analysts say there is a disconnect between polls and what is really a tight race.
“The polling methods are inadequate,” Edgar Gutierrez, a former foreign minister who now runs a think-tank in Guatemala, said. “They’ve failed to capture how between 25 and 30 per cent of the people intend to vote.”
Baldizon, who barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago but has since risen dramatically, has made many promises, including taking Guatemala’s football team to the World Cup, considered outlandish by some voters.
But other promises are appealing in a country with rampant poverty and crime. Baldizon has promised workers an extra month’s salary a year and that he will reinstate the death penalty and televising executions.
More than half of Guatemala’s 14 million people live in poverty and the country is plagued by organised crime and Mexican drug cartels.
President Alvaro Colom has had to send troops to retake some provinces from the Zetas drug gang, including Baldizon’s home state of Peten bordering Mexico.
Gang and cartel violence have followed the legacy of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war in which the army, police and paramilitary are blamed for killing the vast majority of 200,000 – most of whom were Mayan.
Perez would be the first former military leader elected president in the country’s 25 years after the end of military rule.
While that concerns some international groups, Guatemala has a young population and many do not remember the war.
Witnesses say hundreds of villages were obliterated by the army’s scorched-earth policy.
Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide. He has never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army’s chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.