Guatemalans vote in tight election

Polls close in presidential run-off with violent crime the key issue.

    Early turnout was low, with many Guatemalans feeling
    a new president would not help their situation [Reuters]

    Polls have closed in Guatemala for what is predicted to be a close presidential run-off vote with how to tackle rising violent crime the key issue.

    Recent opinion polls gave Otto Perez Molina, a retired general, a slight lead over his more left-leaning rival Alvaro Colom.

    About six millions of the country's 13 million population were eligible to vote in Sunday's election.

    But early voting was slow compared to the first round poll in September when parliamentarians and mayors were also elected and Colom won the presidential vote by 4.7 per cent.


    Crime the issue in Guatemala

    Mariana Sanchez, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Guatemala City, said the general mood as voting began was generally dull with no queues outside voting centres.

    "There is a sense of apathy here," she said. "There is a belief the new president will not be able to deliver on his promises as they have not been able to in the past."

    Diego Garcia-Sayan, the head of the electoral observation mission from the Organisation of American States, told Al Jazeera that it was not unusual for the second round of voting to be lower than the first in Guatemala.
    "Maybe it's because in the second round people don't vote again for mayors or people who represent them in the congress which probably it's a person they know more than the candidates to the presidency that would make them feel they are a little bit far away," he said.

    History of violence

    Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world and about 6,000 people were murdered in the country last year alone.

    About 50 candidates and supporters were killed ahead of the first round of voting, and a further five political murders were reported since then.

    Colom, left, or Perez Molina will take up the
    presidency on January 14 [AFP]

    The country has been plagued by violence for much of its recent history.

    The army ruled the Central American country for decades until the mid-1980s and committed hundreds of massacres

    As many as 200,000 people are thought to have been killed during 36 years of civil war before the government and left-wing rebels made peace in 1996.

    Guatemala is a major transit point for cocaine shipped to the United States, and drug cartels have grown in influence in recent years.

    Colom has said he will tackle the country's endemic corruption and alleviate crushing poverty.

    The 56-year-old businessman, who is running for the presidency for the third time, says rival Perez Molina's army history gives him a dark past.

    "My hands are not bloodstained," he said.

    He admits organised crime is present in his party and some voters say he is not tough enough to fix the nation's problems.

    Tough on crime

    Perez Molina, 56, has said he will adopt a tough stance on street gangs, drug dealers and other criminals.

    The retired general wants to deploy the army, double the size of the police force and bring back the death penalty to combat street violence.

    "We are going to have to use the army ... to take back control of territories that have been practically lost," he said in reference to areas of the country that are now more or less controlled by drug cartels.

    The winner will take over as president from Oscar Berger on January 14.

    September's first round vote was a crushing defeat for Rigoberta  Menchu, who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her indigenous rights  activism but who trailed far behind with just three per cent of the ballots.

    Menchu is an indigenous Maya, the ethnic group that makes up the country's majority, who often live in poverty and were the main victims of the country's civil war.

    Colom is running for the presidency for the third time [AFP]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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