By Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The uphill struggle of Guatemala's ruling leftists to field a candidate puts the military establishment on the verge of regaining the presidency just as probes into the country's brutal civil war begin.
The center-left Union of Hope Party (UNE) may have no candidate at all for September's election if an appeal by former first lady Sandra Torres fails to overturn a court decision barring her from the presidency.
Already well behind in polls, her absence would nearly guarantee victory for former general Otto Perez, 61, of the right-wing Patriot Party (PP), raising fears that nascent efforts to prosecute military officials for crimes committed during the war will founder.
Nearly a quarter million mostly Mayan villagers died in the 1960-1996 conflict.
Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer, said she expected Perez to obstruct ongoing civil war cases if elected.
"He'll suggest that the war is over and everyone should get together. But without any justice that's exactly the same as saying everyone should get together after World War Two without Nuremberg" where Nazis leaders were tried, she said.
UNE hopeful Torres has been the closest rival to Perez in the presidential race, albeit an unpopular one. A June survey by Guatemalan pollster Prodatos showed her lagging the frontrunner with 15.1 percent support to Perez's 42.5 percent.
Torres's bid has been in serious doubt since there is a constitutional rule that prevents family members of the president from taking power.
To skirt this, Torres in March tearily announced she had divorced President Alvaro Colom, who by law cannot run for a consecutive term. But a court ruled against her last month and unless her appeal succeeds and her popularity recovers, Perez could win in a first round vote on September 11.
In a country deeply scarred by the army's role in the civil war, many voters back Perez in the hope he can restore law and order in areas ravaged by violent incursions by Mexican drug gangs.
"Guatemala needs a strong man to govern this country," said Juan Mancilla, 54, a thrift store owner among thousands of cheering Perez supporters at a recent rally in the capital.
"We're under attack and he's the only one offering security. If Perez doesn't win ... you'll see how the criminals and drug dealers take control of this country," he added.
Perez has pledged to act against organized crime in one of Latin America's most troubled countries with an "iron fist".
Colom's government denies crime is growing in Guatemala, citing a drop in murders to 6,502 in 2010 from 6,948 in 2009. But that is still more than 44 murders per every 100,000 people, nearly nine times the rate in the United States.
Voters are worried about the violence.
In a recent poll, two-thirds of Guatemalans said security was their biggest concern heading into the election.
Mindful of the need to strengthen the army against cartels, Colom has said he would repeal a law passed in 2004 limiting the military budget to 0.33 percent of Guatemala's GDP. Watchdogs fear the army may exploit this under Perez.
During Guatemala's civil war, a U.N.-backed truth commission found 85 percent of the rights violations were committed by the military, and after years of prevarication, the government has begun to prosecute implicated officials.
On July 25, four former special forces officers became the first suspects to stand trial for the massacre of over 200 people in the village of Las Dos Erres in late 1982.
Human rights groups say Perez, who served in the army until 1998, was involved in wartime abuses, an accusation he denies.
In July, the Guatemalan indigenous group, Waqib Kej presented a letter to the United Nations accusing Perez of human rights violations in the Quiche region during the war.
Perez has dismissed his detractors.
"If there are accusations, I don't know about them," he told the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre. "I was director of intelligence and my job was to uphold the constitution."
The war remains a touchy subject in Guatemala.
Although the government in June declassified over 12,000 military documents from 1956-1996, it has kept information secret from 1982-83, the war's bloodiest phase. Critics say Colom has been reluctant to investigate war crimes.
But some political analysts say Guatemala has enough laws in place to prevent abuses if Perez wins a four-year term.
Violence often plagues elections in Guatemala and death threats against candidates and poll monitors are common, making the outcome uncertain. Several experts also point out that many voters are only backing Perez to keep Torres out.
If Perez does not win 50 percent plus one vote in the first round, a run-off between the top two candidates will be held on November 6. If Torres does not compete, support could potentially coalesce around another centrist or leftist candidate.
However, political analyst Marco Barahona said both Eduardo Suger and Manuel Baldizon, the two other most prominent politicians still in the race, were unlikely to stop Perez.
"We don't see that Suger or Baldizon have the organization or the resources to capitalize on Torres' absence," he said.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Philip Barbara)