`Puppet of the general' inches towards victory

Guatemala elections: Presidential candidates face a second round
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The Independent Online

Guatemala City

Guatemala may have to hold a run-off presidential election on 7 January despite Sunday's clear-cut victory by Alvaro Arzu, a 49-year-old travel agent and conservative former foreign minister.

Mr Arzu, candidate of the National Advancement Party (PAN), was far ahead of Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), the party run by the former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. But the winner was likely to fall short of the 50 per cent necessary to avoid a two-man run-off in January.

As supporters of the 17 eliminated candidates shift allegiance, Mr Portillo, considered something of a puppet of General Rios Montt, could move ahead leaving the former "scorched earth" dictator as the power behind the throne.

The newly-formed social democratic New Guatemala Democratic Front, with a solid Mayan Indian base, was a distant third in Sunday's vote. It was the first time the Left had participated in elections since the return to democracy in 1985.

But as always in Guatemala's recent democratic history, most of the country's Indians - 60 per cent of the population - stayed home and the overall turn-out looked like being below 50 per cent.

Many Guatemalans who abstained recalled what had happened to the last man they elected. Jorge Serrano, elected in 1990, dissolved Congress in 1993 and tried unsuccessfully to seize dictatorial powers. Ramiro de Leon Carpio, then the country's human rights ombudsman, was named by Congress to finish the presidential term.

Individual issues were barely a factor. For illiterate Indians, the vote came down to personalities, all of whom largely promised the same - an end to impunity for criminals, an end to discrimination against Indians, peace with the guerrillas and righting the inequality between the wealthy ladino (white) elite and the 80 per cent who live below the poverty line.

All parties used simple symbols on their ballot slips. One candidate, a wealthy landowner known as "the man in the hat", used a symbol of a sombrero. Another used a rubbish lorry, symbol of how he planned to clean up the streets. Even many illiterate people could recognise the acronym PAN as the most important word in their vocabulary - "bread".

"It's all a show. Nothing will change under Arzu," Juan Hernandez, a 43-year-old Kakchiquel Indian, told me in the town of Chimaltenango. "He's a preacher who hasn't been converted. Los poderosos [the powerful ones] only like us during campaign time, then they ignore us again. They say we Indians do not have the preparation to govern but they won't let us govern. It's just like South Africa."