Change in Guatemala

November 14, 1990

It is a breakthrough. All indications are that on Jan. 14, an elected president will succeed an elected president for the first time in Guatemala's history. That is more important than the not-very-inspiring choice that will be put to voters in a run-off on Jan. 6 of the 12-way first round election for president held on Sunday.

The top two are Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a newspaper publisher who has been campaigning nonstop since he came in second in the 1985 election, and Jorge Serrano Elias, an economist who served a dictator. Each won about one-quarter of the vote. Both count as conservative. Mr. Serrano is also, notably, an evangelical Protestant in a country where most people are at least nominally Catholic.

The outgoing president, Vinicio Cerezo, was ineligible to succeed himself. This saved him the embarrassment of getting tossed out by the voters. After a strong start, his government was seen as corrupt and weak. The candidate of his Christian Democratic Party came in fourth.

Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in 1982 and ruled by firing squad through 1983, was ruled off the ballot as constitutionally ineligible for having made a coup. Otherwise, his record of human rights abuses is retroactively popular with many Guatemalans living under a three-decade civil war, rising crime and a failed economy. He might have won.

General Rios Montt told voters to spoil their ballots, but many voted for Mr. Serrano, who had served him in office and later played a role in national reconciliation. Losers include a former Guatemala City mayor representing hard-line free enterprisers, who came in third.

After the vote, dopesters were picking Mr. Serrano as the likely January winner based on his alliances, despite the minority standing of his religion. Given the fragility of Guatemala's democracy, a victory for either candidate is preferable to a victory for no candidate at all. Mr. Serrano may even prove more effective than Mr. Cerezo.

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