2 Right-Wingers Face Runoff in Guatemala : Politics: Carpio, the pre-election favorite, will run against Serrano, former aide to dictator Rios Montt.


A right-wing businessman and a former leader in one of Guatemala’s bloodiest regimes who has strong roots in the nation’s large evangelical movement emerged Monday as the candidates to be president in January after a first round of voting failed to select a majority winner.

With 76% of the votes counted from Sunday’s balloting, the two leading candidates were Jorge Carpio Nicolle of the National Centrist Union, the pre-election favorite, with 25.33%, and Jorge Serrano Elias of the Solidarity Action Movement, with 25.03%. Ten other candidates shared the remaining bvotes.

The two front-runners, who have no basic differences on dealing with human rights abuses and economic inequities and who are both acceptable to Guatemala’s still-dominant military, will run again Jan. 6. The winner will succeed Christian Democrat Vinico Cerezo Arevalo, who was ineligible to run again. It will be Guatemala’s first transfer of power from one elected government to another.

Carpio, a conservative 48-year-old newspaper owner, has suffered from a reputation as a lackluster candidate; one of his major supporters once described him as having “the charisma of a baked potato.” And he has faced opposition from other members of the business elite who say his moderation on some social policies betrays his economic stance.


But it was Serrano, the evangelical and onetime chief assistant to Gen. Efrian Rios Montt, the former dictator, who was a major surprise. He had been expected to finish no better than third.

Nonetheless, an unexpected combination of factors put him in the runoff, including the significant support he gained from backers of Rios Montt, who was disqualified from running for president earlier this year because he had gained power in a 1982 coup.

Serrano, a 45-year-old Stanford University engineering graduate with a hard-line conservative economic view, had served as head of Rios Montt’s Council of State and was an outspoken supporter of the general’s bloody policy of repression. And he has tacitly echoed Rios Montt’s campaign pledge that he would use similar tactics to deal with Guatemala’s high crime rate and social disarray.

At the same time, many experts say they think Serrano also has greatly benefited from the support of the 35% of the country belonging to the evangelical movement, although he played down religion as a public issue.


On Monday, both candidates immediately began looking for alliances among the losing parties, with Serrano playing to the third-place finisher, right-wing businessman Alvaro Arzu, who has a personal and political bone to pick with Carpio, and the remnants of the outgoing Christian Democrats.

Carpio is expected to try to pick up Christian Democratic support as well and to obtain the backing of the country’s large but apolitical Indian population.

But neither Carpio nor Serrano has a truly distinctive program, particularly on the most serious issues facing Guatemala: one of the world’s worst human rights problems and a rotted economy marked by a nearly singularly unbalanced distribution of wealth.

Meanwhile, neither candidate has proposed fundamental changes in what is one of the most unbalanced economic systems in Central America--one that has left more than half the country underemployed or unemployed. According to the World Bank, only 13% of Guatemala’s 9 million inhabitants live above the poverty line, and illiteracy stands at 67%.


None of this is likely to change as a result of Sunday’s elections. In a recent interview with the New York Review of Books, Edmond Mulet, a Carpio supporter, said: “Nobody in Guatemala dares to mention the idea of redistributing wealth. Everybody knows it should be done. . . . But if you say it too loudly, you scare the (large landowners) and the army. The gap between rich and poor remains.”