Guatemalan Election Digs Deeper Roots for Democracy

GUATEMALANS are proving democracy is possible here. Sunday's successful elections are the first time in a century that one civilian government has followed another without interruption by the country's strong military.

Placing first in the presidential race was Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a prominent publisher. Close on Mr. Carpio's heels was Jorge Serrano Elias, a born-again Christian and associate of Jos'e Efra'in R'ios Montt, the former military ruler. The race was close, and a January runoff election will decide the winner, who will take office later that month.

Voter turnout was 57 percent, down from 69 percent in 1985 when voting was mandatory. But the elections were widely praised by the 418 international observers as mostly free of fraud.

``The process was peaceful, orderly, and free of any overt intimidation,'' says election observer Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor who headed a delegation from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

With 76 percent of the votes counted, Carpio, the candidate of the center-right Union of the National Center (UCN), received 25.3 percent of the tally with strong support in the countryside. Mr. Serrano, who entered the race late, received only 0.3 of a percentage point less. Former Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Arz'u Irigoyen gained 18.5 percent.

Numerous parties are represented

The 116 congressional seats have been filled by a hodgepodge of parties, which will force Guatemala's next president to form a coalition to govern.

Serrano, of the Solidarity Action Movement (MAS), stormed into contention only weeks before election day. While leading candidates Carpio and Mr. Arz'u of the National Advancement Party hammered each other, Serrano conducted a door-to-door campaign on a shoe-string budget.

``We shook 15,000 hands a week,'' says MAS vice presidential hopeful Gustavo Espina Salguero.

Party officials in both camps admit there are few differences between the two presidential candidates. Both Serrano and Carpio are businessmen never before elected to public office. Both favor free-market reforms and privatization of state-run enterprises. Both promise to hold peace talks with leftist guerrillas with no preconditions.

Army still holds sway

The still politically dominant Guatemalan Army, which has fought the insurgency for 30 years, says the rebels must throw down their weapons before peace can be negotiated. The candidates also offer a blanket amnesty for those responsible for 100,000 killed and 40,000 people ``missing'' in the long conflict.

Saying he will bring about peace, Serrano cites his founding role in the National Reconciliation Commission that has overseen preliminary peace talks this year with the guerrillas. He notes, too, his good relations with the military.

Although Carpio has more support from the business community, Serrano is ``a mild fundamentalist'' Christian, says one analyst. He is believed to have picked up votes from Mr. R'ios Montt, who was disqualified from the presidential race because of his role in a 1982 military coup. R'ios Montt and Serrano both belong to evangelical churches, along with about 35 percent of the population. Serrano also held office while R'ios Montt was in power from 1982 to 1983.

``Voting for Rios Montt is illegal. I like him. He'd stop the violence. But he's not a candidate,'' says the owner of a stationary store in Santa Cruz del Quich'e, a poor rural town.

A few miles south, in Chichicastenango, Roberto Gonzales, a teacher, says he voted for Carpio. ``Carpio has a good plan for the poor. But if I could, I would vote for R'ios Montt,'' he says.

So far, the campaign has been notable for its lack of debate over important issues, such as human rights abuses by right- and left-wing extremists, agricultural reform, and downsizing the Army.

``No candidate wants to speak about military reform now,'' explains newly re-elected congressman Edmund Mullet. Though soldiers are not permitted to vote, ``the Army controls 600,000 votes through the civil patrols,'' he says. Still, Mullet figures each candidate has a reform plan under wraps that would be enacted once in office.

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