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Ex-mayor wins Guatemala election

A pro-business former mayor of Guatemala City was leading a center-left engineer late Sunday night in a presidential run-off election that was marred by low voter turnout.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A pro-business former mayor of the Guatemalan capital was elected president over a center-left engineer who billed himself as the candidate of the poor in a runoff election marred by low voter turnout.

With 94 percent of the votes counted early Monday, conservative Oscar Berger had 55 percent, compared to 45 percent for his opponent, Alvaro Colom. Berger was mayor of Guatemala City from 1990 until 1999, and had a 29 percent lead in the capital, according to results released by the election commission.

Berger declared himself the winner of Sunday's race even before early results were released, inviting his opponent to join his administration-to-be. Colom refused to concede the election, however, saying he would continue to wait for more votes to be counted before addressing the media on Monday.

But Oscar Bolanos, the election commission director, said at a news conference that there was "very little change" the remaining six percent would cause a major change in the final results, which were to be released at midday Monday.

Dearth of voters
What was clear was that the election failed to strike a chord with most voters. Many polling stations were mostly empty throughout the day Sunday and the country's human rights ombudsman released a statement saying observers had noticed a dearth of voters.

Preliminary results concluded that less than 46 percent or registered voters went to the polls. In last month's national election, lines forced voting centers to stay open for several extra hours and 58 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

That race featured the candidacy of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who ran for president with the ruling party, but failed to advance to Sunday's second and decisive round of presidential voting because he finished a distant third behind Berger and Colom.

"I'm voting to set an example for my children," said Luis Miranda, a 37-year-old accountant who cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 7 a.m. "But there are many people who won't vote because the local elections are over."

The lack of a close contest may have deterred would-be voters. Polls leading up to the election have shown Berger, who enjoys the support of the business community, with a lead of at least 15 percentage points over Colom, a former vice economy secretary and ordained Mayan minister.

"I am going to be an honest man with an honest team that's going to be very austere," Berger said amid hundreds of cheering supporters at a victory party. "We don't want to spend more than what's necessary, investing in public health, public safety."

Colom, who had pledged to fight for the country's poor and largely marginalized Mayan majority, had said he would make up Berger's advantage in the capital by winning most of the country's rural provinces.

Colom did garner more support outside of the country's urban centers, especially in the largely Mayan west. But it was not enough to overcome his opponent's control of the capital. Berger also got a boast from the majority of voters in the country's southeast.

Voting took place across this country of 14 million with few complaints of irregularities, though Guatemala City police were summoned to polling places in three neighborhoods after receiving reports that assailants were using homemade cannons to fire nails at the tires of arriving cars.

About 1,000 election observers were stationed throughout the country to prevent violence and election fraud.

Trial for ex-dictator?
Rios Montt's 18-month regime during the early 1980s was the bloodiest of a 1960-96 civil war. The 77-year-old former general has been accused of genocide for applying a scorched-earth campaign that killed thousands of civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas.

Both Berger and Colom ran for president in 1999, but finished well behind Alfonso Portillo, a populist from Rios Montt's party. Portillo's popularity has plummeted amid charges of government corruption and a failure to reduce crime rates. Term limits bar him from seeking re-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.

Berger has dodged questions about whether his government would put the ex-dictator on trial.