Well before dawn, Indian men in cowboy hats and women in woven splashes of primary colors lined up in the village square, huddled against a highland chill. Shortly after the sun burned through mountain mist, their long wait culminated in votes to give Guatemala a civilian president after 15 years of direct or indirect military rule.
The Guatemalan voting has been cited abroad as a measure of movement toward representative government and away from the military leadership that has resulted in human rights violations here for decades. The candidate who comes out winner after a probable runoff round Dec. 8 has been designated in advance as the country's symbol of democracy.
More than half of the country's 8 million citizens belong to Indian groups similar to those who voted here in the Quiche region, and most of them speak only unwritten Indian languages in which democracy does not exist even as a word. Silverio de Leon Lopez, a local legislative contender, said that he and other regional candidates define the meaning of elections in campaign speeches as "No more killing" or "We want to be free."
This highlands region, about 75 miles northwest of the capital, witnessed some of the toughest repression against leftist guerrillas in 1980-82, and these words have found resonance among Indian farmers and craftsmen. Even without words for democracy or a clear idea of what the campaign means, de Leon said, the inhabitants of Quiche have expressed their desire to move from military to civilian rule.
"With all that happened between 1980 and 1982, all the killing and all that, the people are beginning to understand better," added de Leon, himself a Quiche-speaking Indian.
Nicolas Sukuki, an Indian farmer who walked to Chiche early this morning to vote, said he does not know who is president of Guatemala now -- Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores -- or who the candidates are to replace him -- a field of eight ranging from ultraright to moderate left.
But Sukuki added: "Maybe the best thing would be to have a civilian."
The level of guerrilla activity has fallen sharply since the Army employed tactics that included resettlement of thousands of Indian villagers and their forced participation in Army-supervised civil patrols. Those units now total 900,000 members.
But Guatemalan and diplomatic officials have noted a resurgence of rebel attacks in recent months, apparently signaling that the approximately 1,500 guerrillas have rearmed and reorganized.
The two leading presidential candidates, Vinicio Cerezo of the Christian Democratic Party and Jorge Carpio of the National Center Union, both have vowed to pursue the fight against insurgents with tightened human rights controls on Army tactics. The history of Army-dominated government here has raised doubts, however, about the ability of any civilian president to impose drastic reforms on the 30,000-man military establishment.
In one indication of these doubts, the newspaper Prensa Libre bannered as its main story today an assertion by a former military president, Gen. Carlos Arana Osorio, that the military plans no more coups d'etat.
Attention has focused on Cerezo, a center-leftist, and Carpio, a center-rightist, because several polls indicated that they were headed for the one and two spots in today's vote. If no candidate wins an absolute majority, the top two must face each other in the second round next month. Polls were open from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., but the first results trickling in tonight were insufficient to demonstrate trends.
A preelection poll by the U.S.-based Spanish International Network indicated that Cerezo has generated particular strength in the capital, which has about 20 percent of the 2.7 million registered voters. Analysts here said that seemed to reflect his long and well-known stance of opposition to the military.
Guatemalan political observers said, however, that most urban opposition to the Army stems from economic dissatisfaction and a widely shared assessment that the military has mismanaged the economy, rather than reaction to human rights violations.
Edgar Ponce, a mayoral candidate in Guatemala City, said his talks with voters in recent months indicate that this assessment is shared by the city's poor, who have been hit hard by price rises, as well as its business leadership.
"The principal factor has been the mismanagement of the economy," said Pedro Miguel Lamport, president of the main business federation, the Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Chambers Coordinator.
The annual rate of inflation has hit 30 percent recently and unemployment along with underemployment is put at 40 percent. The value of the Guatemalan quetzal has dropped from 1.20 to 3.50 to the dollar in the last year.