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Former coup leader threatens to disrupt Guatemalan elections

A former coup leader strongly supported by the right says a ban on his candidacy could lead to a bloodbath during Guatemala's Nov. 11 presidential elections. Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a tough-talking evangelical Christian who seized power in 1982, has also raised the specter of a return to military dictatorship in the Central American nation.

Rios Montt, who waged a brutal campaign against leftist rebels during his 17 months in power, was leading most polls until the Constitutional Court annulled his candidacy Oct. 19.

The court ruled that the 1985 constitution forbids anyone who has taken power by force from seeking the presidency.

In reaction, the 64-year-old retired general has called on his fiercely loyal supporters to stage nationwide protests and urged them to disrupt the balloting on election day.

"We're going to demonstrate our non-conformity," he told cheering supporters at a rally outside the capital last weekend.

"We'll go into the streets and block traffic. They'll have to run over us. How pretty the blood flowing to protect liberty will be," he said.

Rios Montt, who is campaigning on a law-and-order ticket, has also made a point of saying that the ban on his candidacy has stirred deep-rooted unrest in the military. The claim has unleashed a flurry of coup rumors.

The military ruled Guatemala almost continuously from a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 until December 1985 when President Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, took office.

He has survived at least two coup attempts and hand-picked his party's candidate, Alfonso Cabrera.

Newspapers reported that Cerezo, whose government has been plagued by widespread charges of corruption and inefficiency, met with the army high command this week to explain the ban on Rios Montt's candidacy and seek to quell army discontent.

Rios Montt has added to the uncertainty by urging his supporters to destroy their ballots or write in his name as a candidate Nov. 11.

Despite his oratory, some analysts doubt that Rios Montt's pulpit-style brand of politics will rouse his supporters to action.

In 1974, the general threatened to stage massive demonstrations after alleged vote fraud kept him from the presidency. But his support soon died out and Rios Montt quietly returned to private life.