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Election Leaves Opposition in Chiapas Bitter and Angry : Mexico: The PRD and its allies believe they were cheated out of the governor’s post. Pro-Zapatista groups call for campaign of civil disobedience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours after polls had closed, hundreds of Indians, peasants and opposition activists crowded into the historic town plaza here chanting, “Fraud!”

Outraged at the way the elections had been conducted, they seized a voting box Sunday and began a public tally, holding each ballot aloft to cheers and boos from the crowd.

On Monday, they announced they would not accept the ruling party’s local victory.

On Tuesday, far from pacifying troubled Chiapas state, Mexico’s elections left opposition forces here bitter and angry, inflaming tensions and increasing the possibility of further violent confrontations.

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With an armed guerrilla force encamped in the nearby forest-covered mountains, the prospects for lasting peace and stability have been thrown into question by the opposition’s perception--still unproven--that it was cheated out of the chance to elect one of its own as governor, analysts say.

“The peace process has become more urgent,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, mediator between the rebels and the government.

With 93% of the votes counted in the governor’s race, the official tally gives the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 49% of the vote to 30% for Amado Avendano, a crusading newspaper publisher who ran on the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) ticket.

Avendano’s candidacy--nearly ended by a suspicious car wreck--was supported by grass-roots groups and rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, whose New Year’s Day uprising dramatized demands for democracy and justice for the country’s Mayan masses.

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Despite a general impression that the elections at a national level were cleaner than most in modern Mexico’s fraud-filled history, opposition forces here have compiled numerous reports of vote-buying, intimidation and rigged counts that they claim deprived Avendano of a narrow victory.

The groups who backed Avendano’s candidacy--and who share the Zapatistas’ demands--have proclaimed him governor-elect and announced a three-month campaign of civil disobedience starting Sunday.

They say they are peaceful, but actions planned range from marches and roadblocks to the takeover of government buildings--actions sure to rankle the conservative Chiapas elite, area ranchers and the PRI Establishment, already on edge because of the challenge to their power and privileges that the Zapatista movement represents.

“We won the election and we want peace,” Avendano told supporters Monday night in a rare public appearance. “We are ready to fight and we will not negotiate the will of the Chiapas people.”

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Concepcion Villafuerte, Avendano’s wife and an outspoken leftist leader, declared, “Starting today, we begin to take power.”

The injuries Avendano sustained in a July 25 wreck that killed three of his campaign associates have prevented him from making public appearances. He spoke Monday night to about 200 supporters who cheered him with Zapatista slogans, according to La Jornada newspaper.

Except for Zapatista territory, where officials said 73.7% of the 20,000 people voting cast ballots for the PRD, the official results giving the PRI the lead are consistent with pre-election polls; PRI partisans were expected to dismiss opposition claims as sour grapes.

Regardless of the real results, if the opposition comes away from these elections unable to trust the system, it is unlikely to have much faith in government promises to make Mexico more democratic, analysts said.

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“There is a danger that many people who participated (supporting opposition candidates) will be discouraged,” said economist Rogelio Ramirez de la O. “They will believe that only a Marcos-type approach will foster change here,” he added, referring to Subcommander Marcos, the masked leader of the rebels.

The Zapatistas, whose 12-day revolt in January left 145 people dead before a cease-fire was declared, had threatened to retaliate if the elections were deemed fraudulent. But the role they will play in what many here are calling the next phase of the conflict is unclear: No longer regarded as a significant fighting force, they also find their military options limited by the presence in the region of an estimated 12,000 Mexican army troops.

Further, the Zapatistas, aware that military options were exhausted, had already begun a process of ceding the initiative to civilian political forces. Renewed warfare is not seen as likely.

Still, the Zapatistas hold on to their weapons and have shown a remarkable skill at manipulating world opinion and forcing concessions from the national government.

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And persistent reports of armed groups in Guerrero, Oaxaca and other parts of southern Mexico, consistently denied by the government, raise the specter of Zapatista-inspired violence elsewhere.

Some in Chiapas also fear violence from powerful landholders and ranchers, emboldened by a PRI victory and angry over recent seizures of parts of their land by pro-Zapatista peasants.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army has not yet announced its judgment of the elections and is believed to be holding an internal assembly to analyze the voting and results.

On the eve of the election, Subcommander Marcos said he would not order an immediate military response to fraud. But he cautioned that his troops “will remain alert in case the door to peaceful change closes once again.”

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For his part, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, the government’s representative in negotiations with the rebels, indicated that he felt the Zapatistas would react positively to the fact that thousands of Indians voted for the first time in their lives.

“Peace cannot be reduced to an electoral process,” Madrazo Cuellar said Tuesday. “The elections are one step in a process, and the process must continue. I believe we are on the threshold of peace.”

The goal of the opposition is to use civil disobedience to prevent Eduardo Robledo, the PRI candidate, from assuming office Dec. 8.

There is precedent: Government opponents who felt they were cheated out of an electoral victory in 1988 eventually forced PRI candidates to step aside in the states of San Luis Potosi, Michoacan and Guanajuato.

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The opposition groups, who range from the left to center and include Indian organizations, are also demanding a recount, spokesman Arturo Luna said.

They want Avendano to preside over a transitional government that will write a new constitution for Chiapas.

Domingo Lopez Angel, a Chamula community leader who ran for the legislature on the PRD ticket, said people are angry because they feel their desires were ignored.

“We won and the PRI is cheating us out of our victory,” he said. “If the PRI will not leave (office) peacefully, they will leave by force.”

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He was surrounded by Chamula Indian men, few of whom spoke Spanish but who had begun calling Lopez Angel “Senor Diputado"--Spanish for Mr. Congressman.


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