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Guatemalan Presidential Run-Off Under Way

December 28, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ Guatemala’s presidential polls opened to steady throngs of voters Sunday in a runoff featuring a former Guatemala City mayor popular with the country’s elite facing an engineer backed by former leftist rebels.

Guatemala rejected its bloody past Nov. 9 by rejecting former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s attempted comeback at the ballot box. Human rights groups called the election a turning point for democracy here.

The defeat of the retired general, whose 18-month regime during the early 1980s was the bloodiest of a 36-year civil war, set up the runoff between conservative Oscar Berger, mayor of Guatemala City in 1990-1999, and Alvaro Colom, a former vice economy secretary and Mayan affairs minister.

``This is one of the most important days in Guatemalan history because our country needs a new leader very badly,″ said Luis Miranda, a 37-year-old accountant who braved the early morning chill to cast his vote.

``Today the people decide which man can bring the change Guatemala needs.″

There were no reports of violence or irregularities.

Both Berger and Colom ran for president in 1999, but finished well behind Alfonso Portillo, a populist from Rios Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front party. Portillo’s popularity has plummeted, and term limits bar him from seeking re-election.

Public opinion polls before election day gave Berger a lead of at least 15 percentage points.

``We aren’t saying we’ve already won, but we think the polls have been consistent in showing a considerable advantage for us,″ Berger said during his final campaign appearance. ``We aren’t going to lose.″

Berger, 57, said his first order of business as president would be to nail down financing for 20 construction projects to improve the country’s largely primitive infrastructure, including at least a dozen new highways and massive renovations of Guatemala City’s airport.

About 1,000 observers were stationed throughout the country Sunday to prevent violence and voting irregularities. But polling centers that overflowed with voters last month were nearly empty Sunday.

Roman Bolanos, an 18-year-old student, said he rushed to a Guatemala City school when the polls opened at 7 a.m. to beat the rush. Upon arrival, he found no line.

``It’s a little slow. Last time there were many more people,″ Bolanos said. ``’I think people are saying, ’I voted once, I don’t want to do it again.‴

Colom, 52, is known for his work with civil war refugees in the highlands, where he holds the right to lead Mayan religious ceremonies. He and Berger began the second round in a dead heat, but support for Colom slipped as his campaign went increasingly negative.

``Be careful with the business mafia of the sugar, flower and chicken industries,″ Colom told 900 supporters in the western province of San Marcos, his campaign’s final stop. ``The other guy has their support, but isn’t prepared to be president.″

The first-round defeat of Rios Montt, president of the legislature since 2000, means his immunity from prosecution will run out when his term as lawmaker expires next month.

The 77-year-old has been accused of genocide for following a scorched-earth campaign that killed thousands of civilians at the height of a civil war pitting leftist, largely Mayan guerrillas against the army.

``The question is, ’Will the new government have the strength and courage to confront a man who is one of the country’s most powerful and feared people?‴ said Daniel Wilkinson, a Guatemala analyst for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

``Neither candidate wants to talk about it because there’s no easy answer.″

Rios Montt cast his vote at a school in southern Guatemala City on Sunday, saying his party ``created a human government, not one of gods, kings or princes″ during the past four years.

It was the one of the few times the ex-dictator has appeared in public since his defeat. Many feared he would refuse to accept a loss at the polls and that his supporters would unleash a wave of violence.

But Rios Montt has quietly faded into the background, refusing to discuss his future or endorse either Berger or Colom.

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