- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemalans waited in long lines yesterday to vote in the second presidential election since peace accords were signed seven years ago, participating in a tense ballot that will decide the future of a former dictator accused of human rights abuses.

Fears of violence were fueled when a top aide of center-left presidential candidate Alvaro Colom was shot in the leg and hand outside his home the night before voting.

There were scattered reports of problems during yesterday’s voting, including two women trampled to death as a crowd fought to enter a polling station in the northern city Chajul. Several others were injured.

Pre-election polls showed Mr. Colom, 52, and former Guatemala City Mayor Oscar Berger, 57, in a statistical tie before the voting, with each candidate capturing about a third of the electorate’s support. Retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who led a successful coup in 1982, was trailing a distant third.

The election is only the second since 1996 peace accords ended 36 years of civil war.

State Department officials have warned that relations with the Central American nation would suffer if Mr. Rios Montt is elected. The dictator’s previous government was supported by President Reagan.

Some have feared that the former dictator and his supporters will dispute a loss with accusations of fraud and violence. Ex-paramilitary fighters, some of whom were recruited by Mr. Rios Montt’s past government, have staged angry protests to demand payment for their service during Guatemala’s civil war.

Casting his vote in Guatemala City, the 77-year-old Mr. Rios Montt was greeted by shouts of “Get out.” He condemned the shooting of Rolando Morales, Mr. Colom’s political secretary, and said his private polls showed him advancing to a second round.

“I respect the international community, and I hope they respect the results,” he said.

If no candidate gained more than 50 percent of yesterday’s vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a second round on Dec. 28. Nearly 5 million people are registered to elect a new president, 158 national lawmakers, 331 local officials and 20 members of the Central American Parliament.

There were scattered reports of problems, including complaints about the ink used to stain the fingers of those who had voted — making it difficult to vote more than once. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu said some people had been able to wash off the ink, which is supposed to last several days.

More than 2,000 election observers were stationed around the country to ensure the voting was fair and open. Ballots were encrypted to keep them from being swapped, and vehicles delivering voting materials to polling stations were tracked by satellite to avoid unscheduled stops.

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