Against violent backdrop, Guatemala holds election


GUATEMALA CITY -- Guatemala's five-year flirtation with democracy reaches a milestone today when voters go to the polls after a bizarre, violent campaign.

If the process works and a new president is inaugurated in January, it would mark the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in Guatemala's history.

Yet no one is suggesting that democracy is firmly established in this Central American nation of 8.7 million people.

The leading candidates are talking about tax rates, smaller government and a free-market economy, but the campaign has been dominated by questions of war and peace.

The backdrop to the rallies, speeches and TV ads is the military's simmering 30-year battle with leftist guerrillas. Latin America's longest insurgency has brought a harsh military response: the slaughter of those suspected of being sympathizers.

Human rights groups say the conflict has brought 100,000 civilian killings and 40,000 "disappearances." The body count exceeds the numbers killed in El Salvador and Argentina, where state-supported terror has drawn more attention.

"Guatemala has become famous for the quantity of its deaths, not for its lives," said Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the government's human rights prosecutor.

"The killers act with impunity because there is a lack of political will to punish them," he said. "We are in a climate of violence. Someone accused of sympathy to the guerrillas loses their life, and the vast majority of them are Indians."

The campaign has brought more bloodshed. About 15 candidates and political workers have been killed. So far this year, the government says, more than 260 people have been killed in political vendettas.

Candidates say a civilian president has little chance to control the army unless negotiations with the guerrillas are successful.

Jorge Carpio, a newspaper publisher, has a small lead in presidential polls.

The two candidates with the best chance of joining Mr. Carpio in a runoff are Alvaro Arzu, a respected former mayor of Guatemala City, and Jorge Serrano, who finished third in the 1985 election.

All three claim to be centrists. They have received financial aid from Guatemala's influential private business sector, and their economic strategies are geared toward free-market policies and reduction of the government's role.

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