Laggard Guatemala Tries an Election, But Winners May be Military, Mafia

NO matter which of 19 candidates they support in this weekend's presidential election, most Guatemalans agree that the best outcome for the country is not likely to occur.

That's because what this Central American country needs, people here say, is a popular and independent president to tackle ongoing peace talks with guerrillas as well as corruption and lawlessness.

But barring a significant surprise, no candidate is expected to win the simple majority needed to avoid a January runoff election. And that, observers say, means the next two months will almost unavoidably be a time of backroom negotiations and favor-dealing between the two remaining candidates and political factions.

The real winners Sunday are likely to be the military, the guerrillas, and what Guatemalans call the drug-dealing, car-thieving, and kidnapping ''mafias,'' all of which have built their fortunes on the back of a weak civilian leadership.

''Clearly the best thing for Guatemala would be the election Sunday of a strong president,'' says Silvia Tejeda de Jimenez, spokeswoman for President Ramiro De Leon Carpio. ''If we go to a second vote, then there's the inevitable bartering of favors and it's the people who come in second place.''

The Guatemalan people could stand to come in first for once. It is still attempting to create a viable democracy after 30 years of dictatorship that ended in 1985.

More than 130,000 have died in a 35-year civil war that has resolved nothing. And now as that war winds down and the possibility of a final peace accord looks real, the country's nearly 10 million citizens face rising levels of crime, intimidation, and high-level impunity, or government refusal to prosecute crimes.

The United Nations' human rights mission in Guatemala in a report issued last month called impunity the country's ''most serious obstacle to a fulfillment of human rights.'' The report gave details of cases where police and military officials were literally getting away with murder, often of Guatemalans involved in human rights work.

Guatemala's lawlessness gained attention in the United States earlier this year following revelations that a Guatemalan CIA informant participated in the deaths of an American inn owner and the guerrilla husband of American Jennifer Harbury.

As in other Central American countries, the waning of Guatemala's civil war has allowed a resurfacing of such long-standing problems as poverty, low education levels, and poor services and infrastructure.

''Once again the themes of the country are the problems that gave rise to the region's wars in the first place, but which were not solved,'' says Mariano Rayo, technical director of the Research and Social Studies Association in Guatemala City.

One positive sign coming out of the presidential campaign is that more segments of Guatemalan society are exhorting people to vote.

This year the Guatemalan guerrillas' umbrella organization, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, announced a two-week cease-fire beginning Nov. 1 and for the first time called on Guatemalans to participate in the elections. Labor and human rights organizations and advocates of the country's thousands of disappeared citizens are campaigning, while a new left-wing umbrella party is on the ballot.

''We're seeing a preparing of the way for the insurgency to legally participate in the political process once the peace is signed, as has happened in other Central American countries,'' Mr. Rayo says.

Perhaps the world's best-known Guatemalan, Mayan rights advocate and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu, also hit the campaign trail - not for any particular candidate, but simply to encourage the country's reluctant Mayan majority to help strengthen the country's civilian leadership and democratic transition. However, Mrs. Menchu's 22-month-old nephew was kidnapped last Saturday, in what many say was a mistaken attempt to take Menchu's child.

Despite the new calls to vote, most foreign observers here say turnout over 30 percent will be high. Even the director of the country's elections office predicts turnout will fall under 50 percent.

One reason is a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates. The front-runner - and the only candidate with any chance of earning a simple majority Sunday - is Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, a former mayor of Guatemala City and fourth-place finisher in the 1991 presidential race.

Most observers expect Mr. Arzu to be followed by Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, proxy for former (self-proclaimed) president and military strongman Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. General Rios Montt wanted desperately to be the presidential candidate for his Guatemalan Republican Front, but was barred because of his earlier presidency.

Now Rios Montt's name figures more prominently on campaign posters than Mr. Portillo's. And most analysts assume that if Portillo manages through post-vote alliances to win in January, it will be a Rios Montt presidency - an eventuality that thrills some Guatemalans and chills others.

What worries most observers here is that no candidate appears to have the program or the leadership to address the country's deepening problems. ''Arzu is one example,'' says Rayo. ''He has the right vocabulary when he says, 'No privileges, no discrimination,' but what I don't see is the plan to back that up.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.