Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Mayan Indians to decide presidential poll in Guatemala

AFP , GUATEMALA CITY

Conservative businessmen Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom will face off in a runoff presidential election tomorrow on a promise to end exclusion of the indigenous people who make up 41 percent of Guatemala's 11.2 million population.

Colom, of the center-right National Union of Hope (UNE), claims to be the most equipped for the job of turning Guatemala into a multi-lingual, ethnically integrated, multi-cultural society.

An industrial engineer, Colom, 52, got into politics in 1999 as New Nation Alliance (ANN) presidential candidate, which included demobilized leftist guerrillas of the National Guatemala Revolutionary Unit (UNRG).

A year later, he founded the UNE and shifted his ideology toward the center.

Colom is the only non-Mayan ever to qualify as a spiritual leader in Guatemala's ancient native religion.

"I am the only candidate who knows and understands Mayan Indians' cosmovision and who is committed to making Guatemala an inclusive country without marginalization where indigenous people are no longer third class citizens," he has said.

Mayan priests regularly accompany Colom, a textile industrialist, in political campaigns, burning small fires to bless the UNE candidate.

According to a poll released on Monday, however, Colom is trailing 57-year-old National Grand Alliance (GANA) candidate Oscar Berger.

Berger is set to take 57.3 percent of the vote to Colom's 42.7 percent, the poll by Costa Rica's Demoscopia found.

Local company Vox Latina published another poll a week ago that found 59.3 percent of the vote would go to Berger, compared with 40.7 percent for Colom.

"It's the indigenous vote that makes the difference, according to polls, and is where we have an advantage over the GANA candidate," Colom told foreign journalists in an interview. "We are very optimistic, and on Dec. 28 there's going to be a surprise, because in rural areas and shanty towns people are responding well."

Berger, meanwhile, has pledged to stand on the 1996 Peace Accords that ended Guatemala's 36-year civil war that left more than 200,000 people dead or missing, 80 percent of them of Maya ethnicity, according to the UN-backed Truth Commission.

The right-wing candidate has promised "to work to have a country of solidarity and inclusion where all Guatemalans are equal, without preferential treatment of either rich or poor, mixed race or indigenous."

Berger promises to "fight hard against discrimination and racism" and to set up venues to publicize intercultural values in different social environments.

Mayan leaders slammed Berger earlier this year when he promised in his future government to include Mayans in the foreign ministry and at the National Palace as tourist information officers. The indian leaders said he planned to give them only domestic positions in government.

Mayans already fulfil that kind of role, often in wealthy Guatemalans' homes.

Moves recently made by outgoing President Alfonso Portillo included giving an 11-year concession to Mayan interests of television's Channel 5, and handing over to them the former defense ministry headquarters.

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