Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ELECTIONS-GUATEMALA: Colom Calls for Unity

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 5 2007 (IPS) - "Guatemala is starting out on a path to change, and from now on I am president-(elect of all Guatemalans); I am no longer identified with a single party," said social democrat Álvaro Colom, urging unity after Sunday’s runoff elections.

"We are very grateful to God and to the people of Guatemala," said the founder and leader of the centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE), calling for "a national coalition made up of all Guatemalans" on Monday.

Voters "have said ‘no’ to Guatemala’s tragic history," he added emphatically, referring to the stance taken by his rival, rightwing retired general Otto Pérez.

Colom, who says he will fight the high levels of violence in Guatemala "with intelligence," beat Pérez and his campaign promise to go tough on crime in Sunday’s elections, which went smoothly but were marked by low turnout.

The social democratic leader won in 20 of the 22 departments (provinces) into which Guatemala is divided, while Pérez and his "mano dura" (strong hand or iron fist) pledge won in the capital and in the northern department of Baja Verapaz.

The president-elect said he was extending "a just hand, based on solidarity," and has called for a government of national conciliation, promising to put a priority on fighting poverty, violent crime, corruption and impunity.

With over 99 percent of the votes counted, Colom was reported to have garnered 52.83 percent, against the 47.17 percent taken by Pérez of the rightwing Patriot Party (PP).

This was the third time in a row that Colom, an industrial engineer, ran for president.

Vice president-elect Rafael Espada, a heart surgeon, urged all of the political parties "to work together" for the good of the country, and added in a television interview that "as a doctor, I dream of a Guatemala with the best health system in Latin America."

The latest polls prior to the elections showed the two candidates basically neck and neck, but with Pérez enjoying a slight advantage. Colom’s comfortable margin came as a surprise to many observers.

In the first round, on Sept. 9, the 57-year-old former businessman came in first place with 25.62 percent of the vote, 4.27 percent more than Pérez.

Sunday’s elections were uneventful. The head of the European Union election observer mission, José Antonio de Gabriel, stressed the calm that prevailed, but also pointed out that the abstention rate was over 53 percent.

"Participation was very low," de Gabriel told IPS. He blamed the low turn-out on the length of the campaign, which began even before the official start on May 2, and on the fact that the runoff took place on a long holiday weekend, that stretched from the Day of the Dead on Thursday to Tuesday.

President Oscar Berger of the rightwing Grand National Alliance (GANA), was elected with 46 percent of the vote.

This year’s campaign, in which more than 50 candidates and campaign workers were killed, was considered the most violent in two decades.

The secretary of the parliamentary PP bench, Aura Salazar, was murdered on Oct. 8, and three days later UNE’s campaign manager, José Carlos Marroquín, resigned after reporting that he had received threats from organised crime, and fled the country with his family.

Analysts also blamed the low turn-out on the aggressive campaign filled with mudslinging. While Pérez accused Colom of receiving financing from drug traffickers and organised crime, the UNE candidate reminded voters that his rival was an army officer during the 1960-1996 civil war, in which more than 200,000 people, mainly indigenous villagers, were killed.

"For the first time in 50 years, a completely free social democratic government, with no ties or commitments to socioeconomic sectors, has been elected today…Guatemala has already had ‘mano dura’ for 50 years, which has cost 200,000 lives, poverty and the neglect of indigenous peoples," Colom told journalists Sunday.

In this Central American country of 13 million, where the official poverty rate is around 50 percent although non-governmental organisations put the proportion at 80 percent, native ethnic groups officially make up 41 percent of the population and 65 percent according to NGOs. The rest of the population is basically of mixed-race (Spanish and indigenous) heritage, with a tiny white minority.

The president-elect described Guatemalan immigrants living in the United States as "heroes who sustain the country’s economy," and announced that his government would work for them to gain the right to vote from abroad – "a sacred right," in Colom’s words.

On Jan. 14, Berger will hand over to his successor a country with one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world, where corruption flourishes and the perpetrators of both common crimes and human rights abuses enjoy near total impunity – all this despite the fact that Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, and has reported economic growth of over five percent in the last few years.

According to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, 2,857 homicides were committed in the first half of 2007, and more than 5,000 murders were committed last year.

But only 25 percent of crimes are reported to the authorities, who investigate a minute proportion of them, while an even smaller fraction make it to court.

Violence waged by "maras" or youth gangs and drug trafficking networks is rampant.

And to help investigate infiltration by organised crime in state institutions, an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) will begin work in January – the result of an agreement signed in 2006 by President Óscar Berger and the United Nations.

Analysts say that while macroeconomic stability helps, it is not sufficient to combat the country’s deep-rooted poverty. In his campaign, Colom pledged to put top priority on improving social policies to reduce the poverty rate.

Iduvina Hernández, head of the non-governmental Security in Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS that Colom’s biggest challenge will be "to live up to people’s hopes and expectations with regard to solutions for the lack of security, and to fight people’s economic problems, which could be aggravated over the coming months by the impact of the rise in the prices of oil and other products."

In Guatemala, 48 percent of children are chronically malnourished, and the maternal mortality rate is 121 for every 100,000 live births, according to the second report on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Guatemala.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index 2006 ranked Guatemala 118th out of 177 nations.

Political analyst Gustavo Porras told IPS that one of the main challenges facing Colom, who was a businessman in the textile industry before he got involved in politics, will be "how to achieve political accords that enable him to govern without having a majority in Congress," which has "enormous power."

UNE will only hold 48 of the 158 seats in Guatemala’s single-chamber parliament, and will govern 102 of the country’s 332 municipal governments.

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