Salinas Widens His Lead in Mexico Tally : Voters Take to Streets in Protest; Clouthier Concedes Defeat

Times Staff Writer

As the lead of government candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari widened Monday in official tallies of Mexico's bitter presidential race, protesting Mexicans took to the streets and a combative opponent promised to mobilize followers nationwide against Salinas' victory claim.

Five days after the polls closed, one major candidate conceded defeat in the presidential race, leaving two others to fight it out.

Conservative Manuel J. Clouthier, candidate of the National Action Party, told reporters, "I cannot affirm I have the victory." But Clouthier, who maintained the vote was riddled with fraud, said he is still uncertain about who did win.

"For the life of me, I can't say which of the other contenders obtained the majority of votes," the flamboyant businessman from Sinaloa said. "It's like we have been playing with a deck of marked cards."

New Official Figures

Still in the running--and both declaring victory--are Salinas and leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. New government figures released Monday showed Salinas' lead over his rivals increasing.

In returns announced just before dawn, the federal Election Commission gave Salinas almost 53% of the vote, with 70% of the total vote counted. Salinas is the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Mexico for six decades.

In previous elections, no presidential candidate of the PRI, as the ruling party is called, ever received less than 70% of the total. The official returns gave Cardenas 29% of the vote and Clouthier 16%. Two minor candidates split the rest.

Such partial returns have shown Salinas to be inching up steadily since Friday, when he made public early, partial results that gave him 47%. The final results in what has become a laborious vote count are not expected for days.

Salinas' acceptance of a historically narrow showing has failed to quiet suspicions that the PRI and the government are stealing votes. PRI officials conceded major losses in populous Mexico City and in a few states where opposition representatives closely monitored the balloting. But the PRI has shown exceptional strength, not only in remote rural areas that are its traditional strongholds but also in areas where opposition vigilance is weaker.

Border Vote Count

For instance, in one district along the Guatemalan border, the PRI legislative slate compiled a vote of 61,871; the rest of the parties combined received 3,194 votes. The legislative contests are expected to closely mirror the presidential tally, which will be counted last.

Cardenas appears willing to risk turbulence by pushing his claim to victory through public protest, and he has called for a mass demonstration in Mexico City for Saturday.

Cardenas claims that he is leading with 39% of the vote and that the PRI is stealing the election day by day.

At a news conference, he said the government is practicing "turtle-ism" by delaying the vote count. And he charged that his vote is being reduced in official counts while Salinas' is being inflated.

"The people are not getting the (vote) information, but neither are they accepting the tricks of the government," Cardenas said.

In Mexico, protests of local election results have been common in recent years. On the other hand, popular challenges to presidential votes were, until now, highly unusual.

'Small Incidents'

Presidential spokesman Manuel Alonso termed the protests that have taken place so far "small incidents" and said they represented no threat to the country's security.

On Monday afternoon in Mexico City, hundreds of Cardenas backers marched in downtown Mexico City shouting repeatedly, "Cuauhtemoc, Cuauhtemoc!" and blocking rush-hour traffic.

Late Sunday night in Jalapa, capital of the state of Veracruz, about 10,000 protesters marched to demand "respect for the vote." Elsewhere in the state, protesters blockaded district electoral offices where PRI officials and representatives of opposition parties reviewed ballots.

In Tabasco, a jungle state on the Gulf of Mexico, voters protested a series of alleged voting irregularities. A crowd of 1,000 that gathered in Villahermosa, the state capital, complained that electoral officials permitted PRI people to vote even though their only identification was a party membership card and that opposition voters were turned away. Moreover, they charged, voters were forced to mark their ballots in the open, in violation of voting secrecy laws.

Bridges Now Clear

Over the weekend, followers of Clouthier, the conservative presidential candidate, blocked bridges across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez and several highways leading out of Chihuahua, capital of the state of Chihuahua. But by Monday morning all of the bridges and most of the roads were clear as the demonstrators returned home.

Clouthier denounced the government's vote count as a "brutal" form of fraud. He called on his followers to begin a campaign of civil disobedience and called for a referendum on the vote count at month's end.

Other than alleged fraud, disappointing support in northern Mexico appeared to have sunk Clouthier. The north is his party's stronghold, but Salinas' promotion of free trade and commerce as well as less government interference may have appealed to the northerners.

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