Guatemala election dispute undercuts US arms-aid hope

The March 7 presidential election here may be remembered as one of those that never seem to end.

And, as disputes about the election outcome drag on, the Reagan administration's hopes of seeing a ''fair'' election in this guerrilla-pressured land of volcanoes, mountains, and rain forests become dimmer.

President Reagan would like to resume regular military aid to this pivotal Central American nation. (It was suspended in 1977 on human-rights grounds.) He would like to see the leftist insurgency, which Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. contends is part of a broader Soviet plot for the region, roundly defeated.

Hence, United States officials had hoped a clean, fair election might convince some reluctant congressmen to approve renewed military aid - despite Guatemala's dismal record on human rights.

Today, with posters still decorating parts of the city and campaign offices still drawing crowds of supporters, the incumbent government does indeed maintain that the March 7 election was ''free, pure, and clean.'' The apparent winner and so-called ''official'' candidate, former Defense Minister Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez, is holding press conferences about how he will act when he is scheduled to assume office in three months.

But the second- and third-place finishers - who together got slightly more than half the nation's votes, according to still incomplete government figures - claim the election was a ''fraud.''

So far, they have offered no clear proof, according to the government and to this reporter's own efforts to verify allegations. But the accusation may leave doubts in the minds of many Guatemalans and perhaps Americans.

In an unusual and dramatic joint press conference, the former election foes (who have worked together in the past, however) called on the government to annul the election and hold another one within 60 days. Peaceful public protest, backed by hints of less peaceful action, they hope, will lead to new elections.

The leader of one of these parties, the Opposition Union (Christian Democratic-National Renovating Party), is Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, considered here a moderate.

The leader of the other party, the National Liberation Movement, is Mario Sandoval Alarcon, a former vice-president of Guatemala. A rightist, he was a leader in the 1954 overthrow of the moderate-left government of Col. Jacobo Arbenz Guzman who was backed by the more radical left.

Mr. Sandoval is accompanied around town by half a dozen or more bodyguards with machine guns. His political party office is guarded by even more men, some of whom stand behind sandbags outside the office, guns ready. Mr. Sandoval has boasted in the past of having a ''private army,'' though this is difficult to verify.

A close aide to Mr. Sandoval told the Monitor after the presidential election that whatever actions are taken to try to force new elections must be taken this week -- before the people of Guatemala begin to accept the offical election result as a fait accompli.

''The people right now are hot,'' he said.

The losing candidates' ''proof'' of fraud is difficult to verify. It involves allegation of changed vote totals from some polling places and lost or withheld totals. The candidates claim communications with their pollwatchers during the vote-counting period were blocked intentionally by the government - a familiar complaint in Guatemala.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said it would be ''regrettable'' if there was fraud but that so far the parties alleging fraud ''have not yet provided evidence to this effect.''

When this reporter asked Mr. Maldonado about his allegation of fraud, he offered as ''proof'' these points:

* His party, which has seen the killing of more than 200 of its leaders and elected officials in political violence, was unable to get pollwatchers into some districts.

* His party's telephone communications with pollwatchers were blocked during the vote count, he says.

Some observers here saw these points as election irregularities, rather than proof of fraud.

The government here insists no communications were intentionally blocked during the elections.

Mr. Sandoval's party has handed out to reporters photocopies of vote totals from selected polling places, which, one of his aides contends, show totals suspiciously high. But the tally sheets are signed by representatives of the various parties, including Sandoval's. And it is impossible to tell from these documents alone whether the totals were changed and, if they were, whether the totals were changed before or after the pollwatchers signed their approval.

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