GUATEMALA CITY – Center-left businessman Alvaro Colom claimed victory Monday morning in Guatemala’s presidential run-off election and praised his countrymen for moving forward.
Colom said the people of this Central American nation had said “no” to “the tragic history of the past in Guatemala,” alluding to his opponent, retired right-wing army Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, who had campaigned on the promise to crack down on crime with a “heavy hand.”
With 97% of the ballots counted, Colom, of the National Unity for Hope Party (UNE), had 52.77% of the vote to 47.23% for Pérez Molina, of the rightist Patriot Party.
Pérez Molina conceded defeat and vowed to lead a constructive opposition to Colom’s government.
“We are respecting the results like we said we would,” Pérez Molina said, adding “we are proud of the support we received” from more than 1.2 million Guatemalans and “there will be a Patriot Party for a while.” Pérez Molina congratulated Colom, saying that “we hope he will do a good job” and “we will be watching to make sure he does it … as leader of the opposition, we’ll be staying on top of things.”
Colom, who was making his third run for the presidency, said he had received congratulatory calls from several heads of state, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Panama’s Martin Torrijos, as well as from President Oscar Berger, whom he will succeed on Jan. 14.
The President-elect said he would start working for national unity and reconciliation in Guatemala, setting aside partisan interests to take up “those of all Guatemalans.”
Colom won more votes than any other presidential candidate since the restoration of democracy in 1986 after several decades of military rule.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said the UNE candidate garnered more than 1.4 million votes in the runoff, well above the 1.23 million won by Berger in the 2003 elections.
A practicing Catholic who nevertheless embraces the “Mayan spirituality” of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, the 56- year-old Colom has said that under his government “there will be as much of a free market as possible,” and that the role of the state will be felt only when necessary.
Stressing his experience as a businessman, he vowed during the campaign to create some 700,000 jobs, improve the economy and lay the foundation for the country’s future over the next 30 years.
In his campaign, Colom described his opponent as “a representative of the disastrous past” of military regimes that governed the country during the bloodiest phase of the 1960-1996 civil war, which cost more than 200,000 lives.
Yet Colom’s political career, beginning with his 1999 run for the presidency on behalf of a party comprising former guerrillas, has been tarnished by accusations of corruption and the infiltration of organizedcriminal groups into his party.
After the 2003 elections, which he lost to the conservative Berger, the UNE was found to have received government money to finance the electoral campaign from then-Comptroller General Marco Tulio Abadio, now serving time for embezzlement of public funds.
Although Colom claimed that he had no idea where the money came from that found its way into the UNE treasury through a non-governmental organization, suspicion has shadowed him ever since.
And his assertions that he has purged the party of people with criminal ties were undercut by the recent resignation of his chief campaign strategist, José Carlos Marroquin, who said he got death threats from organized-crime groups that allegedly have their hooks into the UNE.
In the past two years, 18 UNE members have been slain, including two national lawmakers, in attacks that Colom blamed on drug traffickers and other criminals backed by veterans of Guatemalan military intelligence, which Pérez Molina once headed.
Up until 1990, Colom devoted himself to managing his textile factories and was active in exporters’ associations.
In 1991, he became Guatemala’s Vice-Minister of Economy and later went on to head a development fund and to serve on commissions created to implement the 1996 accords between the government and the rebels that put an end to the civil war.
Colom, whose first wife died, is now married to businesswoman Sandra Torres. He is the father of three children.