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Guatemala president election heads to runoff; Perez Molina leads

A tough-on-crime former army general headed for a runoff against a populist congressman in the race to become Guatemala's next president as vote counting neared completion Monday.

With more than 98% of precincts counted from Sunday's vote, Otto Perez Molina held a double-digit lead over Manuel Baldizon, 36% to 23%, but lacked a majority needed to avoid a second round on Nov. 6.

Perez Molina, 60, who led troops against leftist guerrillas during Guatemala's 35-year civil war, went into the voting as the front-runner among 10 candidates. Baldizon, 41, a wealthy businessman, cast himself as a champion of the impoverished and elderly.

"We would like to have won the first round, but we're also ready," Perez Molina said.

Baldizon, a two-term congressman who has called for a flat tax and extra month's bonus pay for workers, said his second-round strategy was to "be Baldizon."

Both men preach hard-line remedies to Guatemala's deepening crime, cited by voters as the nation's worst problem.

Perez Molina calls for a firm hand against crime groups, a strategy that would employ the army. Baldizon has made the death penalty a centerpiece of his security plan.

Raquel Zelaya, a political analyst in Guatemala City, predicted a "polarizing" second round as the candidates joust over hot-button issues. She said Baldizon's economic proposals would stir controversy.

Violence has soared as Mexican drug gangs elbow into Guatemala's long-established underworld. In Guatemala City, the capital, homegrown toughs prey on businesses and residents, often for just a few dollars and frequently killing their victims.

Many voters blamed President Alvaro Colom, a leftist, accusing him of not adequately addressing crime and impunity.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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