GUATEMALA CITY — A former general promising to get tough on rampant crime and drug violence easily won Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, marking a shift to the right in the poor Central American nation.
Otto Perez Molina of the conservative Patriotic Party won 55 percent of the vote, topping tycoon-turned-political populist Manuel Baldizon of the Democratic Freedom Revival party, who had 45 percent with 96 percent of the vote counted, according to Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
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, and many don’t remember the war.
Witnesses say hundreds of villages were obliterated by the army’s scorched-earth policy. Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide.
He has never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army’s chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.
Voter turnout was less than 50 percent. In some regions it was about half what it was for the initial presidential election on Sept. 11, according analyst Oscar Almengor, who led a team of observers from the University of San Carlos of Guatemala.
“The low participation is one of the indicators that worries us because it shows that the people don’t support or feel represented by the political options,” said Manfredo Marroquin of the nongovernmental organization, Mirador Electoral, or Electoral Observer.
Outgoing center-left President Alvaro Colom, who can’t run for re-election, urged both sides to respect the results from the electoral tribunal “to avoid violence and illegal acts.” He said 106 people had been detained nationwide on suspicion of violating of various election laws.
Earlier Sunday, Perez accused Baldizon of offering gifts, including zinc sheeting, in exchange for votes, while Baldizon urged voters not to elect someone with “blood on his hands” for Perez’s involvement the military during the country’s 36-year civil war.
More than half of Guatemalans live in poverty in a nation 14 million overrun by organized crime and Mexican drug cartels. Colom had to send troops to retake some provinces from the Zetas drug gang, including Baldizon’s home state of Peten bordering Mexico.
Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, a product of gang and cartel violence, along with the legacy of its 1960-1996 civil war in which the army, police and paramilitary are blamed for killed the vast majority of 200,000 victims — most of whom were Mayan.
Perez’s campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and cartels. Both candidates lean to the right after the center-left party of Colom failed to field a candidate. Colom cannot run for re-election.
Perez narrowly lost four years ago to Colom, a leftist who promised to fight crime with social programs, but whom many considered weak.
The wild card was the sudden popularity of Baldizon, who the traditional ruling class in Guatemala has painted as inept.
Baldizon, 41, barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago and had risen dramatically to the point that many predicted a close race.
The businessman has made many promises that some considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala’s soccer team to the World Cup. But other promises are appealing in a country with rampant poverty and crime, including giving workers an extra month’s salary a year, reinstating the death penalty and televising executions.