GUATEMALA survived, barely, an unbelievably punishing 36-year civil war, and fairly elected the peace- and reform-minded Alvaro Arzu president. But the peace process, intended as a grand road to modernization of the whole society, lagged. Unchecked street-level violence bred a condition of fear: As crime rose, attention to civil liberties and human rights fell. The business class resisted the tax targets intended to fund health and education for the indigenous Indian majority. Outside the cities, indices of public services--schooling, mortality rates and the rest--are regional lows. President Arzu's best efforts could not stem the tide.

His successor, opposition candidate Alfonso Portillo, comes to office without having established his priorities or made public a commitment to human rights. His is the party of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a dark legend in his own time. The troublesome thing is not simply that the new president has cultivated a tough-guy image but that it seems to have gone down so well amid a population demonstrably less interested in law than order. Suspicions of illegal activity on his part may actually have helped him at the polls.

This is what happens when culture and circumstance combine to weaken the basic institutions of governance. No amount of promise and exhortation can compensate for structural weakness. What it takes is what Guatemala is short of: a common dedication to the public good and possession of the tools and resources essential to rebuilding a society from the bottom up.

But there still may be some space for hope left. There are talented and resourceful people in Guatemala. Their devotion to democracy and human rights is demonstrable. The leadership may be as much populist as right-wing. Guatemala has friends in the hemisphere and beyond who are prepared to recognize its striving with aid. With time and good fortune, reform could pick up speed.