By Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalans anxious for relief from out-of-control crime voted for a new president on Sunday with right-wing retired general Otto Perez well-placed to take an early lead.
Very early results gave the 60-year-old head of the right-wing Patriot Party about 36 percent of the vote, after counting of just over 1 percent of the ballots.
Perez needs to exceed 50 percent of the votes cast to avoid a November run-off with the second-place candidate, expected to be Manuel Baldizon, a well-off hotel owner and former congressman who sports slicked-back hair and square glasses and promises handouts to the elderly and poor.
No presidential hopeful in the coffee- and sugar-exporting Central American nation has won in the first round since Guatemala returned to democracy in 1986 after decades of military rule, but Perez says he has a chance to make history.
"We see a significant possibility of winning in the first round but it depends on the will of the Guatemalan people," Perez said as he cast his vote at a school in the capital earlier, mobbed by television cameras and supporters.
Baldizon, who defected from the ruling National Unity Party in 2008 to found the Renewed Democratic Liberation Party (Lider), had 25 percent support in the early count, based on results from 171 of the country's 16,668 polling stations.
Campaigning focused on Guatemala's losing battle against street gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking cartels moving South American cocaine up to the United States.
About a dozen people are murdered every day in the country of 14.7 million and Perez gained traction by spouting a slogan of a "firm hand" -- or "mano dura" -- against crime in jingles, slick TV ads and ubiquitous orange campaign posters.
Similar policies in other Central American countries, like El Salvador, have meant sweeps by security forces to put in jail youths just for belonging to street gangs.
"I like the idea of a 'firm hand,'" 30-year-old secretary Andrea Velasquez said at the polling station where Perez voted. "We need a military solution to end the violence."
The run-up to the election, which will also select legislators and mayors, has been marked by more than 30 political murders since the start of the year, according to the independent human rights ombudsman. One former mayoral candidate is in jail accused of killing two rivals.
MORE SECURITY SPENDING
Baldizon, 41, got a boost in the polls last month when President Alvaro Colom's wife, Sandra Torres, was forced to pull out of the race. He scrambled to pick up her supporters.
Colom is barred by the nation's constitution from seeking re-election. A law from Guatemala's era of military dictatorships also stops close relatives from running for office. Several courts ruled against Torres' run even after she divorced Colom in a bid to skirt the rules.
Both Perez and Baldizon say they want to increase security spending. The brutal Zetas cartel from Mexico is accused of massacres and beheadings in rural areas along Guatemala's lucrative smuggling routes. Street gangs wreak havoc in towns and cities.
Perez wants to hire 10,000 new police and 2,500 soldiers while Baldizon has suggested creating a national guard and supports the death penalty.
Deploying the military to the streets -- a model used by Mexico against the drug cartels -- has different implications in Guatemala, where the army committed many atrocities during the 1960-96 civil war.
Perez commanded troops during the war and served as the head of a military intelligence unit accused of engineering assassinations of political rivals. He denies allegations he was involved in human rights abuses and points to his role signing the 1996 peace accords with leftist guerrillas as proof that he is a pragmatist.
Some voters who still have memories of the war are not convinced. "Soldiers are not trained to govern," said 75-year-old Eduardo Higueros.
Last month, Standard & Poor's put Guatemala's credit rating on negative watch due to a rising deficit, expected to top 3 percent of gross domestic product next year, and a paltry tax take, among the lowest of all the countries the agency rates.