The candidate of a party linked to atrocities during Guatemala's protracted civil conflict was headed toward an overwhelming victory tonight in a presidential runoff amid widespread frustrations that the end of the war three years ago has brought few social and economic dividends.
With 73 percent of the balloting counted, Alfonso Portillo, a lawyer and populist-style candidate of the opposition Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), had 68 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for his opponent, Oscar Berger, a businessman and former mayor of Guatemala City, who represents the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN).
Portillo, 48, the son of a rural teacher who was heavily favored in recent polls, declared victory tonight in the trademark rasp that has earned him the moniker "hoarse chicken." "I thank God and the people for the support they have given me. I will live up to the expectations the people they have placed on me," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, Berger, 53, conceded defeat before disappointed supporters, saying, "I hope the Guatemalan people have not made a mistake." President Alvaro Arzu was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term.
Today's contest followed a first round of balloting on Nov. 7 that left Portillo just short of the majority he needed to win the presidency outright. The lengthy campaign and subsequent balloting have historic significance for a nation that it is choosing its first president since 1996 peace accords signed by the Arzu administration and Marxist guerrillas ended the country's 36-year civil war.
An estimated 200,000 people, mostly peasants, died or disappeared during the conflict, Central America's longest. But the ravages of the conflict have given way to rampant crime and other forms of social violence, while 80 percent of the population of 11 million people remain in poverty. Portillo, who narrowly lost to Arzu four years ago, has waged a law-and-order campaign that has resonated among people disenchanted with a government they consider elite, corrupt and unable to deliver the social and economic benefits they hoped peace would bring. He jolted the nation in September when he acknowledged he had fatally shot two men--in what he says was self-defense--in a brawl in Mexico 17 years ago and then fled out of fear he would be unfairly prosecuted. But the admission only boosted his popularity among Guatemalans who complain that lawlessness is spiraling out of control. Rivals have accused him of being a surrogate for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, the FRG's so-called "maximum leader," who has been accused by human rights organizations of genocide during his rule in the early 1980s. But Portillo's candidacy appears to have won the support of voters nostalgic for the Rios Montt-style of legal expediency that fostered low rates of crime and corruption--albeit while ignoring human rights. The runoff comes at a time of deep concern here and in the international community over the failure of the Arzu government to implement key reforms tied to peace accords that were aimed at remedying the social, political and economic problems that fueled the civil war. Portillo has pledged to forge ahead with the peace process, mindful of the fact that large amounts of foreign aid depend on his doing so. "There is an opportunity, at least in the short-term, to revive the peace process," said Hugh Byrne, senior associate for Guatemala at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization. He added, "The international community will not give Portillo the same slack as they did with Arzu because of the baggage that Portillo and the party bring."