Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party suffered another symbolic defeat Monday, losing the mayor's office in the strategic state capital of Chiapas. But preliminary results from local elections in the strife-torn southern state appeared to deal their worst blow to the political left.
In a state where popular sympathy for an indigenous revolt by Zapatista rebels had been expected to generate wide support for the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, the ruling PRI was instead sweeping to power in the scores of towns and villages it has controlled with an iron grip for decades.
Early returns from the largely peaceful polls showed the ruling party leading in about 60 of the 109 municipalities where mayoralties were at stake; the populist PRD led in just 14, and the rest were too close to call. PRI candidates also were ahead in the majority of races for the state's 40-seat legislature.
The worst defeat for both parties, though, came in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, where the PRD was headed for a distant third. There, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, was leading by a 2-1 margin over the ruling party's candidate. Such a victory in the most important contest of the day would probably bolster the national image of the PAN, Mexico's largest opposition party.
Running on a platform of modest democratic and economic reform, the PAN has won several key races in state elections throughout the country this year. Its party leadership in Mexico City cited the Tuxtla Gutierrez result as another key indicator of national support as it prepares for two other important state polls in Michoacan and Oaxaca next month.
In assessing their grim showing in Chiapas, PRD leaders attributed their losses to a low voter turnout, which they blamed on the Zapatista National Liberation Army. The group's unresolved uprising against the federal government has fueled insecurity and kept the army out in force in the state.
"The PRD was seriously affected by the Zapatistas' decision to abstain from voting," said Raymundo Cardenas, the party's electoral action secretary in Mexico City. "The call to abstain was followed mostly by people living in pro-PRD municipalities."
But, after a campaign in which half a dozen of the PRD's mayoral candidates were killed and a ruling party candidate was kidnaped (and is still missing), President Ernesto Zedillo declared the results of Sunday's polls a victory for peace--and for the government's negotiating process with the Zapatistas.
"The most important aspect is that, according to the reports we have, the whole thing passed off in peace, with a lot of respect for citizens," Zedillo told reporters in Argentina, where he is attending a summit of Latin American and Iberian leaders. "This should satisfy all of us Mexicans."
Earlier this year, Zedillo helped defuse political tension that was helping drive the Zapatista rebellion when he secured the resignation of Chiapas' ruling-party governor.
Zedillo appointed a bureaucrat to replace Eduardo Robledo Rincon, whose election victory had so angered the PRD that it formed a government in rebellion, asserting that Robledo won only through traditional fraud.
No election for the governorship was scheduled Sunday. And at the last minute, state officials postponed mayoral contests in several towns where they feared election-day clashes.
Election officials tallying the vote from remote regions of a state where the Zapatistas rose up in armed rebellion Jan. 1, 1994, demanding democracy and a better life for Indians, said that fewer than 50% of Chiapas' 1.6 million voters went to the polls.
Although the Zapatistas issued no formal call for a boycott, some voters in pro-rebel towns said they had been told by rebel representatives not to vote. And the Zapatistas' ski-masked spokesman, known as Subcommander Marcos, publicly warned in recent weeks that the government was "playing with fire" by going through with the elections before the rebellion is resolved.
The next round of peace talks between the Zapatistas and government negotiators is scheduled to be held later this month.