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Despite Victories, Mexico’s Ruling Party Loses Support : Elections: Initial results show PRI holding on to governorship, five legislatures. But conservatives gain.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party ended its worst political year in six decades on a high note Monday--apparently holding on to the governorship in the key state of Michoacan and maintaining a narrow majority in five state legislatures.

But as official returns poured in from local elections in six states and Mexico City, millions of Mexican voters appeared to have continued turning against the state party, strengthening the nation’s conservative opposition and rejecting its political left.

Official tallies will not be complete until later this week. But with more than 60% of the vote counted in most places, the National Action Party, or PAN--now the nation’s second largest--was headed for victories in more than a dozen mayoral races in major cities and was running a strong third in the Michoacan gubernatorial poll.

That showing for the 56-year-old, center-right PAN appeared to bolster its long-term strategy to build a national power base that can unseat the ruling party from the presidency--for the first time in 71 years--in the year 2000.

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The biggest loser in the tallies of Sunday’s vote--as many analysts had predicted--appeared to be the populist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. It lagged a distant third in most contests and, with nearly three-fourths of the vote counted, was seven percentage points behind the PRI in the gubernatorial race in Michoacan, the PRD’s traditional bastion.

Many analysts concluded that the returns--viewed as an important barometer of Mexico’s body politic in a year when economic crisis is changing the political landscape--confirmed a conservative shift away from the PRI and away from violence as well, particularly in the nation’s vote-rich cities. It is a trend, they say, driven by the nation’s deepening poverty and recession.

Rather than turn to radicalism, analysts said, most Mexicans are using the government’s new commitment to free and open elections to voice a quieter demand for change. Increasingly, the political parties are accepting the results without street fights. Six years ago, by contrast, the PRD mobilized 100 days of bloody unrest in Michoacan after its narrow defeat in the governor’s race there.

And, despite apparent legislative wins in Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Tamaulipas and Sinaloa, and its third victory in six major gubernatorial races this year, analysts said Monday’s results sent, on balance, a negative message to the PRI.

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Even in Michoacan, where the ruling party’s gubernatorial candidate, Victor Manuel Tinoco, was clearly ahead, the total of his rivals was well over half the vote--reinforcing Mexico’s new pluralism.

“This is the end of a pretty disastrous year for the PRI,” said political analyst Sergio Sarmiento. “It’s been a great year for the PAN. . . . And for the PRD, the results say that the party has proved very capable of its own self-destruction.”

Plagued by infighting in Michoacan, home to PRD figurehead leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and its traditional vote bank, the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Cristobal Arias, apparently failed to convince voters that his party represented a viable, safe alternative to the PRI.

Analysts stopped short of interpreting Monday’s results as the beginning of the end of Mexico’s political left; a recent opinion poll indicated that 23% of the electorate considers itself left of center. But all agreed that Cardenas’ party, which splintered off from the ruling PRI just seven years ago, must reorganize and refurbish an image many voters see as too violent and radical.

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