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Businessman Takes Strong Early Lead In Guatemala Voting Candidate Alvaro Arzu Promised To Curb Privileges Of The Wealthy

In a presidential runoff marred by scattered violence, a center-right businessman appeared to edge out the front man for a tough-talking former military ruler in voting on Sunday.

Early unofficial returns gave a strong lead to Alvaro Arzu, 49, the head of the National Advancement Party.

With two-thirds of votes tallied from the capital, Arzu carried a nearly 2-to-1 edge over Alfonso Portillo, an economist from the conservative Guatemalan Republican Front founded by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, whose de facto government in 1982 and 1983 is accused of slaughtering thousands of Indian peasants.

In the countryside, the race appeared nearly even, but Guatemala City is considered critical to winning the runoff.

Definitive results are expected latertoday. The winner takes office Sunday, succeeding President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, who was constitutionally banned from seeking a new term, and ushering Guatemala into the next millennium.

Turnout appeared low, significantly below the 47 percent of the 3.7 million voters who took part in first-round elections Nov. 12.

Vandals threw hundreds of small nails along periphery roads in an attempt to halt the 2,600 or so buses and trucks offering free rides in the capital, flattening tires of dozens of vehicles carrying voters to the polls.

“It is unfortunate and embarrassing for us,” De Leon Carpio said, “but it will not delay the electoral process.”

Several cars were set afire in the suburb of Mixco, the independent Radio Sonora reported, and assailants fired shots at the offices of political parties in several towns, causing damage but no injury.

Arzu, a polo-playing former Guatemala City mayor, has built his National Advancement Party (PAN) from scratch. Surrounded by a coterie of professionals, he pledges to modernize the state, curb the privileges of the wealthy and negotiate an end to a 35-year guerrilla insurgency.

His PAN party has never occupied the presidential palace, and - should it win - analysts say it may be in a strong position to reform government.

PAN swept the November elections, capturing 42 seats in the 80-seat unicameral Congress. With sympathizers also on the Supreme Court, the party would have a powerful grip.

In the weeks before the runoff, common and political crime surged, dwindling Arzu’s lead in the opinion polls. His opponent is seen as far tougher on crime.

On Dec. 6, De Leon Carpio deployed 1,000 soldiers to patrol roads across the country in a move that underscored citizen concern about public security.

The affable Portillo, whose raspy voice has earned him the nickname “pollo ronco” - or hoarse chicken - seized on the crime surge, declaring that his political godfather, the former strongman Rios Montt, “will be responsible for national security.”

Tags: Election