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Guatemalan Presidential Runoff Under Way

December 28, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ A month after rejecting a former dictator’s bid for presidency, Guatemalan voters turned out Sunday to choose between a former mayor backed by the rich and a center-leftist engineer running as a champion of the poor.

Official turnout numbers were not yet available for the run-off presidential vote, but polling centers appeared nearly empty _ a sharp contrast to the Nov. 9 contest, when 58 percent of more than 5 million registered voters cast ballots for president, national legislators and local officials.

The lack of a close contest may have contributed to the apathy.

Pre-election polls showed former Guatemala City mayor Oscar Berger leading by at least 15 percentage points over Alvaro Colom, a former vice economy secretary and ordained Mayan minister.

``I don’t want to start acting like the big winner, but the polls have been very clear and they give us an advantage,″ Berger said after voting with his wife in southern Guatemala City.

Showered with confetti by supporters, the candidate said he would spend the rest of Sunday meeting with campaign officials to discuss possible Cabinet appointments.

Voting began across this country of 14 million without complaints of irregularities, though Guatemala City police were summoned to polling places in three neighborhoods after reports of assailants using homemade cannons to fire nails at the tires of arriving cars.

City spokesman Hector Morales said no arrests were made in the apparent efforts to discourage voters. About 1,000 observers were stationed around the country to prevent election fraud.

In the opening round of voting Nov. 9, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt sought the presidency with the ruling party but finished a distant third and was eliminated.

Rios Montt’s 18-month regime during the early 1980s was the bloodiest of a 36-year civil war. The 77-year-old former general has been accused of genocide for applying a scorched-earth campaign that killed thousands of civilians at the height of fighting between leftist, largely Mayan guerrillas and the army. The war ended in 1996.

Berger (pronounced ber-SHEA) and Colom both 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 amid charges of government corruption and a failure to address skyrocketing crime rates. Term limits bar him from seeking re-election. Speaking on the radio Sunday, the president urged people to get to the polls.

Berger, 57, who served as Guatemala City mayor from 1990-99, has 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 extensive renovations of the capital’s airport.

Colom, 52, is known for his work with civil war refugees in the highlands. Arriving with his wife and a cadre of security guards to vote in eastern Guatemala City, Colom said he expected to win a ``calm and fair election.″

The first-round defeat of Rios Montt, who has served as president of the legislature since 2000, means his immunity from prosecution will expire when his term as lawmaker ends next month.

Colom once boasted he would throw Rios Montt in prison if elected but backed away from that claim. Berger has dodged questions about whether his government would put the ex-dictator on trial.

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

It was one of the few times the ex-dictator has appeared in public since his defeat. Many feared he would refuse to accept the loss, and that his supporters would turn to violence. But Rios Montt has quietly faded into the background, refusing to discuss his future or to endorse either Berger or Colom.

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