Ex-general wins Guatemalan presidential election

AP News

11/7/2011 1:38:12 AM - AP News

In the end, tradition trumped rising enthusiasm for a youthful populist.

Guatemalans have once again elected as their new leader the presidential candidate who lost the previous election, something they have done since democracy returned to the Central American country in 1986.

Retired general and former intelligence director Otto Perez Molina of the conservative Patriotic Party won an easy and early victory on Sunday in a runoff race against tycoon-turned-political populist Manuel Baldizon of the Democratic Freedom Revival party. Perez garnered 54 percent of the vote to Baldizon's 46 percent.

It was exactly as the polls had predicted, though many distrusted them and felt a last-minute surge by Baldizon would make the race tight.

But analysts said it was Perez who surged in the final days.

"At the end of the campaign, Otto Perez began to appeal to the idea of continuity and stability, while Baldizon tried to appear new and creative," said Renso Rosal, political analyst with the University Rafael Landivar. "That doesn't sit well with a conservative society like Guatemala."

Voter turnout was nearly 60 percent, though early reports said it would be under 50 percent.

Perez, 61, is the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala in the 25 years after the end of brutal military rule.

While that concerns some international groups, Guatemala has a young population. Many don't remember the 36-year war or its 200,000 dead, the vast majority of whom were Mayan and victims of army, police and paramilitary.

Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide. He was never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.

"They talk a lot about the past, but there has been no case against him," said Perez supporter Daniel Rustrian, 20, who was voting for the first time. "I'm not saying there wasn't genocide, but no one has demonstrated anything against him."

Instead, voters supported Perez's "iron-fist" approach to rampant crime in the country, which has been overrun by gangs, Mexican drug cartels and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. President Alvaro Colom had to send the military to various parts of the country in the last six months to regain control from the drug gangs.

"The first order of business will be to lower the levels of violence and insecurity that we're living, and work with congress to improve the federal budget," Perez said upon his victory, touching on the country's other major problem.

Guatemala has one of lowest tax rates in the world, raising little money for schools, roads or other improvements that would help bring the country out of severe poverty. More than half of Guatemala's 14 million people live below the poverty line. The establishment traditionally has fought hard against raising taxes.

Perez, who takes officer Jan. 14, narrowly lost four years ago to Colom, who cannot run for re-election. That tradition bodes well for Baldizon, 41, who barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago. He had risen dramatically to place second in the Sept. 11 election and to compete in Sunday's runoff thanks to his youth, enthusiasm and populist promises.

"There are two winners, no losers," said Alberto de Aregon of the political firm of Aregon and Associates.

Baldizon made some promises considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup. But other promises are appealing, including giving workers an extra month's salary a year, reinstating the death penalty and televising executions.

Both candidates lean to the right after the center-left party of Colom failed to field a candidate.

Perez made his military career as an intelligence specialist, one of the most influential and powerful sections of the army. According to declassified U.S. documents released by the National Security Archive research organization, Perez studied in 1985 in the U.S. military's School of the Americas. He also took classes at and led the school for the elite commandos known as "kaibiles," a force linked to massacres of peasants during the war.

He's also known as the general who stood behind the constitutional court when in 1993 President Jorge Serrano tried to dissolve Congress and the constitution. He was appointed head of Guatemala's equivalent of the Secret Service for Ramiro de Leon Carpio, a human rights ombudsman chosen by Guatemala's legislature in 1993 to serve out the presidential term after Serrano fled.

Baldizon on Sunday urged fellow Guatemalans to vote for a new face and reject a candidate with "blood on his hands" from his military career. Perez in turn charged Baldizon with giving handouts in exchange for votes.