GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) — Guatemalan voters on Sunday cast their ballots in presidential, legislative and municipal elections after a bloody electoral campaign that highlighted the rampant violence candidates have pledged to tackle.
About 50 candidates, campaigners and relatives were killed during the run-up to voting day. The deaths have been partly blamed on criminal gangs seeking to gain political influence.
But earlier fears of renewed violence on election day itself appeared unfounded, with no significant incidents reported as the voting was still under way Sunday afternoon.
The presidential election was seen as a race between Otto Perez Molina, a retired general who wants the army to fight crime, and social-democrat Alvaro Colom who has pledged to battle endemic poverty.
Also among the 14 hopefuls, but trailing far behind with single-digit support, was Rigoberta Menchu, whose activism for indigenous people won her the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.
The vote appeared set to go to a November 4 run-off between the top two vote-getters, as none of the candidates looked likely to garner the 50 percent needed to win outright on Sunday.
Casting his ballot, Perez Molina, called for a clean campaign for the second round. "We want it to be a quality campaign between the two candidates so Guatemalans can chose the best," he said.
The last voter intention poll ahead of the voting gave Colom 34 percent and an eight-point lead over his right-wing rival, but just days earlier the two were seen to be running neck-and-neck.
Perez Molina's pledge to use a "hard fist" against street gangs, drug dealers and other common criminals has struck a deep chord in a country where 6,000 murders were reported last year.
The retired general wants to double the size of the police force and bring back the death penalty to combat street violence.
Colom, for his part, has pledged to clean up the notoriously corrupt police force and overhaul the judicial system, which many see as slow and inefficient. He also to promised to comply with pledges to pay a financial indemnity to thousands of former paramilitaries who had supported the armed forces during the country's 36-year civil war.
Experts say many former fighters became easy recruits for crime organizations after a peace accord was signed in 1996.
The brutal civil war, which claimed as many as 200,000 lives, was on the minds of many in this Central American country, where officials say just over 50 percent of the 13 million population live in poverty, a figure which aid groups believe is closer to 80 percent.
"Let us not return to an era of blood and terror," Colom said in his final campaign rally, in a jab at his rival, whose credentials include stints in the 1990s at the head of military intelligence and a now-disbanded elite army corps blamed for executions of political opponents.
Perez Molina, 56, who signed the 1996 peace accords, retired from the army in 2000 and later won a congressional seat.
Colom, also 56, is an industrial engineer and businessman-turned-politician, who made two previous bids for the presidency.
His critics claim the uncharismatic Colom lacks the strong hand needed to battle the ills that plague Guatemala.
Almost six million people were eligible to participate in Sunday's elections. Among the first politician to cast his ballot in the capital was former dictator and congressional hopeful Efrain Rios Montt, who has been accused of human rights violations during his 1992-1983 rule.
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