Guatemalans went peacefully to the polls Sunday to choose a new president in the first purely civilian transfer of power since 1951.

An evangelical Christian and former Cabinet officer claimed the lead late Sunday and said he hoped to avoid a runoff by working out a deal with the losing candidates.Jorge Serrano Elias, a 45-year-old engineer, said preliminary returns indicated he would get at least 40 percent of the vote in the 12-candidate field.

"I'm not sure if there will be a second round," he said.

It was not immediately clear what type of arrangement he could make to avoid the runoff required if no candidate achieves a clear majority.

"This has been a triumph of dignity against money," said Serrano, who portrayed himself as untainted by the often-dirty world of Guatemalan politics.

Serrano served under Gen. Efrain Rios Montt and attends the same evangelical church as the former dictator.

The two candidates who had been expected to reach a runoff were newspaper publisher Jorge Carpio Nicolle, 58, of the National Center Union, and former Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, 44, of the National Advancement Party. Both are free-market proponents backed by the country's business elite.

The ruling Christian Democratic Party's candidate, Alfonso Cabrera, 47, is in a Houston hospital where he is being treated for a pancreatic disorder.