A retired right-wing general who promises to stamp out spiralling crime in Guatemala was on the verge of becoming the first military man to serve as president since democracy returned to the country in 1986.

With votes in Sunday's presidential election counted in 90 percent of polling stations, Otto Perez was leading with 54.89 percent support, the electoral commission said. His younger centrist rival Manuel Baldizon had 45.11 percent.

Supporters of the silver-haired Perez, 60, believe he is the best candidate to tackle lawlessness and violence in the coffee- and sugar-exporting country, which has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas.

Although some fret about Perez's military past and his role in a 36-year civil war that tainted the army, polls ahead of the presidential vote showed him well ahead of Baldizon, a businessman with a message to help the elderly and the poor.

Both Perez and Baldizon, 41, said they would boost security spending but Perez has made a promise of a mano dura, or firm hand against crime, his campaign slogan.

I'm voting for General Otto Perez Molina because he's an ex-military man, said Jose Efrain Castillo, 73, a school bus driver who believes the former general has a better chance of cutting the murder rate than Baldizon.

Perez supporters began to gather near a local campaign headquarters in Guatemala City in anticipation of a victory announcement.

The retired general will replace centre-left President Alvaro Colom, whose National Unity of Hope (UNE) party failed to field a candidate in the contest.

MILITARY PAST

Perez would be the first military man at Guatemala's helm since its return to democracy in 1986.

About a quarter million people were killed or disappeared during the Central American nation's civil war. A U.N.-backed Truth Commission found that the vast majority of atrocities were committed by the military.

But Perez has never been charged and dismisses accusations of involvement in abuses. He responds to questions about his role in the war with a reminder that he signed the peace accords in 1996.

Analysts say not enough progress has been made in implementing the accords and that the elections come at a crucial point in the country's young democracy.

Guatemala is a very unequal society, said Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). And there is not great faith in democracy.