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Central America Update, Vol.II no.1, 1-15 January 1996

Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen of the National Advancement Party (PAN) is Guatemala's new president after narrowly defeating his opponent in a January 7 runoff election. The pro-business, conservative Arzu, who gained the largest share of votes (36%) in the first round of polling in November, won 51.22 percent of votes cast in the runoff.

Arzu's opponent, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of the rightist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), who finished second in the first round (22%), lost in the runoff with 48.78 percent. Due to a disappointing 62.28 percent abstention rate, the 2.4-point difference between the candidates amounted to a mere 31,956 vote margin. Portillo, a substitute for former dictator and FRG chief Efrain Rios Montt -- who was disqualified by a constitutional provision prohibiting the candidacies of former coup plotters -- won the majority of votes in the countryside, while Arzu scored highest in the cities -- 68 percent in the capital.

Despite the notorious "scorched earth" campaign that marked Rios Montt's year and a half in power (1982-1983), the FRG has maintained a significant base of popular support. It has done so largely by promising to maintain law and order at a time of increasing citizen insecurity. Arzu benefited from concern over Rios Montt's record -- sharpened by the Catholic Church's openly- expressed opposition to the evangelical ex-general -- and from his party's reputation for honesty, gained by its stewardship of the capital and other cities. Arzu was mayor of Guatemala City from 1986 to 1990.

Voting was mostly peaceful, though unidentified persons scattered hundreds of nails along main streets of the capital, making transportation difficult by puncturing tires. The police also received a large number of false bomb threats.

Most of the 23 political parties that participated in the first round of voting did not throw their support behind either candidate, as they did for Jorge Serrano Elias in the 1990 election. 8,700 police and 2,700 Treasury Guards were deployed to guarantee a peaceful election. Public transportation was free on election day in the capital, thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Institute for Latin American Democracy.

In his victory remarks on Jan. 7, Arzu signaled his intention to limit the military's power: they must, he said, "confine themselves to the specific space for which they were created, not a step more, not a step less." He added that the Constitution "clearly establishes the parameters within which they should move," and they must not "expand beyond that."

New cabinet members include:

Vice President - Luis Flores.
Minister of Defense - Gen. Julio Balconi Turcios
(a current member of the peace negotiation commission, COPAZ).
Chief of Military High Command: Gen. Sergio Camargo.
Minister of Foreign Relations: Eduardo Stein (formerly of the UNDP).
President of Congress: Carlos Garcia (PAN).

This is a semimonthly publication providing information on issues related to security and militarism in Central America. The above information comes from a large number of sources freely available over the internet. Please address all comments or contributions to: Adam Isacson, c/o Center for International Policy, 1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 312, Washington, DC 20036. Or by e-mail: