Guatemalans Count Votes on Charter Changes
By Alfonso Anzueto
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- A ballot measure that would give official recognition to Guatemala's 24 Indian ethnic groups was headed toward defeat in the capital.
With one-quarter of the votes counted from Sunday's referendum in Guatemala City, the measure was losing by a margin of two-to-one. Results from Guatemala's heavily-Indian provinces were trickling in and could reverse the trend.
Voters in the capital, mostly of European origin, also rejected by a similar margin proposals to strengthen civilian control over police forces, limit presidential powers and bolster the judiciary.
The proposed constitutional reforms are part of peace agreements signed in 1996 between leftist rebels and the conservative government, which put an end to the country's 36-year civil war.
The referendum has heightened tensions between the country's Indian majority and those who fear the reforms would give Indians special privileges.
``I am voting because I want Indian peoples to be equal to the 'ladinos,''' said Francisca Morales, speaking in Quiche, a Mayan Indian language, and using the common term for white or mixed-race Guatemalans.
The use of Quiche was forbidden in Guatemalan schools for centuries under Spanish rule, and even after independence. Peasants were forced to change their Mayan names, and even their traditional dress.
The referendum seeks to undo that systemic discrimination. Under the proposed ballot measure, Congress would have to consult Mayans before passing legislation affecting them. Mayans would have rights to sacred ground, and government services would have to be available in indigenous languages.
But for Morales and her husband, Tomas Calel -- who voted at a polling place in the city of Chichicastenango, about 95 miles west of Guatemala City -- other issues, like judicial reform, were key motives for voting.
``I voted so that thieves would get the punishment they deserve,'' said Calel, who served as translator for his wife.
Despite the historic significance of the vote, more adults in Chichicastenango went about their daily routines of church and shopping Sunday than showed up at polling places.
``Abstentionism has become a structural problem, it is a historical problem that we are not going to solve with a few elections,'' said Rodrigo Asturias, a former guerilla leader who now heads a leftist political party.
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