Guatemalans go to polls amid uncertainty
November 7, 1999
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (CNN) -- Guatemalans are going to the polls Sunday to elect a president, their first opportunity to elect a leader since the country's civil war ended in 1996. United Nations representatives in the capital of Guatemala City are asking voters to refrain from violence before, during and after the vote.
The leading candidates in a field of 11 are Alfonso Portillo and Oscar Berger. Polls published this week showed Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) with more than 43 percent of the vote and 12 percent ahead of Berger, the candidate for the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN).
Portillo, a former university professor, stunned the country in September when he admitted he shot two men to death in Mexico in 1982. He claimed he acted in self-defense and was never prosecuted after a Mexican judge closed the case in 1995.
Alvaro Colom, the candidate for the left-of-center New Nation Alliance Coalition (ANN), which includes the former guerrillas -- now turned political party -- the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG), trailed a distant third in the latest polls.
To avoid a December 26 runoff, a candidate must win an outright majority of the valid votes cast. Outgoing President Alvaro Arzu is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election and will step down in January.
Some 4.5 million Guatemalans are eligible to vote in the country's fourth free elections since the return of civilian governments in 1986. But, some voters are not convinced that any of the candidates represent a better future.
"I believe the campaigns are a bit weak because they are poorly organized," said one unidentified Guatemalan. "I believe each party is fighting for its own benefit and they are not trying to help the poor, never. Once they get what they want, what else."
The Guatemalan war, which ended with the signing of a peace accord in 1996, was the longest in a string of conflicts in Central America that pitted leftist rebels against right-wing military regimes, left an estimated 200,000 dead or missing, and triggered the flight of tens of thousands of people, some to refugee camps in neighboring Mexico.
About 800 international observers will be on hand to watch out for any irregularities in the 7,601 polling places set up across the country of 11 million, which is about one-third the size of Germany.
Sunday's elections come at a time of growing concern over the government's failure to implement key reforms it had agreed to as part of the United Nations-sponsored peace accords.
The reforms were designed to correct the deep social and economic inequalities that analysts said fueled the conflict. The reforms include curbing the military's power, recognizing the multiethnic nature of Guatemala and reforming taxation to pay for health, education and housing programs for the poor.
The political comeback of ex-military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, accused of genocide by human rights groups because of his "scorched earth" counter-insurgency campaign in the early 1980s in provinces heavily populated by Indians, has prompted fears among analysts that violence could flare up in this still deeply polarized society.
Known as "The General" and revered by supporters as an anti- Communist hero, Rios Montt is constitutionally barred from running for president but he is running for Congress with the FRG, the party he created in the early 1990s.Correspondent Chris Riker and Reuters contributed to this report.
Correspondent Chris Riker and Reuters contributed to this report.
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