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ELECTIONS-GUATEMALA: Second Round Without Rios Montt

José Eduardo Mora

SAN JOSE, Nov 10 2003 (IPS) - Guatemala’s presidential election will be decided in a late December runoff between right-wing candidate Oscar Berger and centre-right candidate Alvaro Colom, who left former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt far behind in Sunday’s poll.

Guatemala’s presidential election will be decided in a late December runoff between right-wing candidate Oscar Berger and centre-right candidate Alvaro Colom, who left former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt far behind in Sunday’s poll.

The partial results from Sunday’s election put Berger, the candidate of the Great National Alliance (GANA), ahead Monday with 38.4 percent of the vote, followed by the National Union of Hope’s (UNE) Colom, with 27.6 percent.

Retired general Ríos Montt, the founder of the corruption-tainted ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), took just 11 percent.

Since no candidate garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, as needed to win outright, the two front-runners will go to a second round on Dec. 28.

The Supreme Electoral Court reported that 70 percent of the country’s 5.7 million registered voters turned out for the elections, which were marred by irregularities and several violent incidents, but not to the extent that local and foreign election observers questioned the results.

Three people were killed Sunday in a fight that broke out in a voting station.

Among the complaints filed with authorities were the burning of ballot papers, allegedly by the paramilitary Civil Self-Defence Patrols (EXPACS) set up by de facto military governments in the 1980s to help fight leftist guerrillas and supposed rebel ”sympathisers”. The EXPACS have been revived by the FRG.

Attempts to print ballot papers were also reported, as well as problems with registration which purportedly kept hundreds of citizens from voting.

According to election observers and analysts, the most significant outcome of the first round of elections was the downfall of the 77-year-old Ríos Montt.

Ríos Montt governed this impoverished Central American nation in 1982 and 1983 after overthrowing General Romeo Lucas García in a coup d’etat. He ruled over the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which was brought to an end by a peace deal in 1996.

The armed conflict left a death toll of 200,000, mainly civilians, according to a United Nations-sponsored truth commission report, which held government forces responsible for the great majority of the deaths.

In a ”scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign carried out by Ríos Montt’s de facto regime, hundreds of rural villages were completely destroyed and tens of thousands of Mayan Indians massacred.

The retired general unsuccessfully tried to run for president in two previous elections, but he was blocked by a constitutional clause that bans former coup-leaders from standing as candidates. However, he got around the ban this time thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.

Local political analysts say the former dictator’s weak performance Sunday spelled his political death.

”That will be the first big victory for Guatemalans: the burial of the myth of Ríos Montt,” Marco Barahona, with the Association of Social Research and Studies, predicted before the elections in an interview with IPS.

Tumbling down along with Ríos Montt is his party, whose government, headed by President Alfonso Portillo, is coming to an end amidst accusations of corruption and supposed ties with businessmen linked to the drug trade.

The left, represented by the former guerrilla National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity, and the New Nation Alliance, led by lawmaker Nineth Montenegro, made a poor showing as projected.

Over the next two months, Guatemalans will witness a struggle between businessmen Berger and Colom, whose campaign platforms contain few differences.

Colom has the backing of a number of small parties, including the National Advance Party, the National Union, National Change, the Unionist Party and the Guatemalan Christian Democracy party.

In addition, political analysts like Barahona and Francisco García at the Central American Institute of Political Studies say there is a possibility that Ríos Montt’s FRG will throw its support behind UNE, which would further improve Colom’s chances.

Both García and Barahona agree that the new political panorama that will take shape from now until the runoff will give Colom a strong possibility of winning in December.

Berger, a conservative businessman and landowner identified with the traditional ruling elite, and Colom, a textile industrialist, have both indicated their interest in making progress towards implementation of the 1996 peace accords that put an end to nearly four decades of armed conflict.

Analysts say compliance with the terms laid out in the peace deal would be the best way to set up a national agenda that would broaden the participation of Guatemala’s impoverished indigenous majority, who account for around 60 percent of the population. An estimated 80 percent of Guatemalan’s 12.3 million people live below the poverty line.

But García and Barahona agree that no matter who wins, the best that can be expected over the next four years is for the new government to lay the bases for a ”real transition to democracy.”

 
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ELECTIONS-GUATEMALA: Second Round Without Rios Montt

José Eduardo Mora

SAN JOSE, Nov 10 2003 (IPS) - Guatemala’s presidential election will be decided in a late December runoff between right-wing candidate Oscar Berger and centre-right candidate Alvaro Colom, who left former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt far behind in Sunday’s poll.
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