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Guatemala: now the reform

Guatemala's presidential balloting went off a lot more smoothly than many people expected. Not only was it surprising that Guatemalans went out in such strong numbers to vote despite what seemed the predictability of the outcome, but also that threats from the guerrilla left to disrupt the voting did not materialize.

Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez's victory over three opponents is being challenged by opponents claiming the government rigged the counting. Still, the vote count in Guatemala City showed General Guevara running significantly behind centrist candidate Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre who did quite well. The relatively good showing for Mr. Maldonado among urban voters suggests just how fed up the more sophisticated voter in Guatemala City is with successive military governments in contrast with the more conservative countryside voter who apparently went for military candidate Guevara and far rightist Mario Sandoval Alarcon. None of the candidates, however, represented the left, much less the leftist guerrillas with whom the army has long been locked in combat. This exclusion of the left meant that voters did not have a full political spectrum from which to choose. That fact puts a cloud over the Guevara win and the election process.

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The big question now, of course, is what happens next. General Guevara has a definite responsibility to live up to campaign promises to start a series of badly needed economic and social reforms. Will his government prove less repressive than his predecessor, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, whose rightist government is accused of killing thousands of Guatemalans over the past four years? Will General Guevara find ways to bring peace to the civil-war wracked land and pacify the leftist guerrillas ''with fairness'' as he promised in his campaign? There are no ready answers to these questions. But the issues they raise are intertwined and a Guevara government will have to work on all at the same time. Geneval Guevara is known for tough military leadership, but is also recognized for his fairness. One of his first tasks, if he wants to win a better reputation than his predcecessor, will be to put curbs on the military. General Guevara was not the army's first choice as the military-backed candidate and just how much clout he has with local field commanders, who are often blamed for the repression, is not clear.

Beyond this speculation, however, is a feeling that the very fact the Guatemalan voting came off without too many hitches in the midst of the civil war augers well for neighboring El Salvador which holds an election for a constituent assembly March 28. Will the joint civilian-military junta there be able to carry out its election with as much ease as Guatemala did? Time will tell, but the voting in Guatemala, together with earlier presidential balloting in Honduras and Costa Rica, at the least suggests that Central America's peoples are eager to vote even if there are imperfections in the arrangements for the elections. In that sense, the heavy voting in Guatemala is a good harbinger.

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