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Ruling Party a Challenger in Mexican Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene was almost too magical to be real: As opposition candidate Patricio Martinez began speaking at the final rally of his campaign for today’s gubernatorial election here, a perfect rainbow arched across the thundering sky.

Martinez told the emotion-charged crowd in this parched northern state of Chihuahua that the timely apparition signaled victory ahead. “I believe the rain will finally come,” he said, “after six years of drought.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Martinez is the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The centrist party, reviled by its foes as a dictatorship in thin disguise, has dominated Mexican politics since 1929; it is not accustomed to being in the opposition.

If Martinez wins in a bruising race considered too close to call, it will be the first time the PRI has won back a state governor’s seat--a comeback for a party that never lost a state from 1929 to 1989 and that has lost only six state races since then.

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Some commentators suggest that a PRI victory in Chihuahua would signal an important advance toward genuine Mexican democracy. After all, for a party to lose power is simple; the more subtle democratic equation is winning, losing and winning again.

Chihuahua’s race is the most closely watched of three gubernatorial contests today, the first such elections of 10 taking place this year. Political analysts say the contests for governor and local offices in the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas are critical for the future of the PRI--and ultimately for control of the national government.

The races are equally important as a test of recent PRI reforms, including unprecedented party primaries that allowed the rank and file to pick reform-minded candidates like Martinez over the party machine’s favorites.

If the right-of-center National Action Party, or PAN, holds on to Chihuahua and wins a second straight six-year term, that could be a major boost for the PAN’s chances of winning the presidency in 2000.

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The PAN and other parties contend that yet more PRI victories would actually retard democracy in Mexico, not foster it.

The PRI has suffered a series of stinging defeats over the last decade, including the loss of Chihuahua in 1992, but it still holds 25 of 31 states.

Last year, the PRI lost its majority in the lower house of Congress and the first-ever mayoral race in Mexico City. There are those who say the PRI is withering.

If it rebounds today, the party will ascribe its renewed health to its defeats, which prompted it to institute internal reforms such as the primaries held in half of the 10 states facing votes this year. The PRI went through feisty balloting for the first time, lending a rare touch of internal democracy to a party better known for back-room deals.

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In other states, the PRI machine declined to hold primaries--sometimes at great cost.

In the central state of Zacatecas, held by the PRI, the most prominent PRI candidate, Ricardo Monreal, was denied the nomination by the party’s kingmakers.

Monreal was infuriated and jumped to the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, Mexico’s third-largest party. The race is very tight, but Monreal could well become the PRD’s first elected state governor, giving the party its first serious foothold north of Mexico City.

In the third state race, in Durango, PRI candidate Angel Guerrero Mier is leading in opinion polls in his bid to retain the governorship for the PRI, but the PAN candidate, Rosario Castro, has closed the gap in the last month.

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“The battle for Chihuahua is the battle for Mexico,” the PAN’s candidate, Ramon Galindo, said in an interview. “If the PAN wins Sunday, we will be able to say to all of Mexico that the people agree the PAN governs best and we are ready to govern the country.”

He said a PRI victory in Chihuahua would be an ominous step toward another PRI win in the 2000 presidential election--just when the other parties believe that they can finally deny the PRI national power for the first time in seven decades.

Some PRI primaries produced unlikely candidates such as Martinez, a former mayor of the city of Chihuahua who entered politics only in 1991 and was not the party machine’s favored candidate. More than 230,000 members and supporters of the PRI voted in the open primary, which energized the party and gave it a burst of publicity before the PAN even started its campaign.

Chihuahua was the birthplace of the PAN in 1939, and its incumbent governor, Francisco Barrio, has been highly popular but cannot run for reelection under Mexican law. Another PAN victory would boost his prospects for the PAN presidential nomination.

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With the stakes so high, the race has sometimes reached vicious depths--even though the policy platforms of Martinez and Galindo are both rooted in economic growth, education and security issues.

The similarities between candidates Galindo and Martinez--and, for that matter, Barrio--are striking. All three are mustachioed, dark-haired former mayors, and all three are accountants who emphasize their ability to make state institutions efficient and accountable.

Chihuahua, which borders Texas and New Mexico, thrives on the maquiladora export assembly plants that employ more than 200,000 workers for an average of $1 an hour each. Both parties have pledged to foster that industrial economy and to improve the technical education that supports it.

PRI candidate Martinez and incumbent PAN Gov. Barrio are both wealthy businessmen from well-heeled families, and the parties have traded mutual accusations about where the money came from. Only the PAN’s Galindo is from a poor family, from the city of Juarez--belying the PAN’s reputation as a party of the privileged.

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Chihuahuans pride themselves on norteno (northerner) prairie traditions. Disdain for Mexico City and its bureaucrats is expressed openly. Pickup trucks, cowboy boots and Mexican rockabilly music set the tone.

As Martinez campaigned across the state, he brought along bands that helped turn rallies into boisterous fiestas. The PRI’s potent local party machines brought out busloads of supporters carrying mass-produced Martinez banners, but there also appeared to be genuine popular interest in taking part.

Dana Viezcas, a 20-year-old university student who wants to be an industrial engineer, was one of about 10,000 people braving the dusty storm at the closing rally here for Martinez.

“It is very important for the PRI to regain the confidence of the people. This will show that power isn’t just with the party in office but that the PRI can lose and win again,” she said. “The PRI has changed--it was pushed into changing. It was good that we lost the last time.”

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But Galindo charged that the PRI has been up to its old corrupt tricks, for example using a surrogate “civic organization” to falsely accuse the PAN of wanting to abolish free high school education.

Guillermo Lujan, the state president of the PAN, said the PRI “gave 100 or 200 pesos to people to vote for Patricio in the primary. They returned to the old vices. It is still the same old PRI.”

The PRI fiercely denies that allegation, which has been widely aired but not independently substantiated.

Martinez, interviewed in his upper-middle-class home in the state capital, said of the PRI’s resurgence in Chihuahua: “The reason is simple: The winds of democracy are blowing in the whole world. Mexico can’t stay aloof from this. For the last three-fourths of the 20th century, the PRI has played a big role, but, when it didn’t change, it began losing influence. The party couldn’t stay with the same systems that were failing. So we took another route.

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“They are the ones buying votes now,” he said of the PAN, “giving beer to the Tarahumaras,” the indigenous people of Chihuahua’s vast western canyons--a charge similarly dismissed by the PAN.

The election “is a signal that democracy exists in Mexico,” Martinez said. “That pluralism has arrived to stay. That there is a political evolution of the PRI that was rejected here six years ago, and the people are willing to throw out the PAN because it was not able to carry out its promise to make Chihuahua a better place.”

Whoever prevails, there is every sign that multi-party democracy is alive in Chihuahua: Every street is plastered with posters and pennants and graffiti. And there’s no reluctance to declare one’s allegiance; it seems that every other car bears a sticker for either Martinez or Galindo.

In the new suburb of Quintas Carolinas near the sprawling northern Chihuahua maquiladoras, food-stand owner Felix Granados Garcia, 67, said the fallout from the economic crisis of the mid-1990s embittered many people against the PRI. But he said he was going to give the party another chance.

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Why? “Because the PAN has done nothing more for us than the PRI did.”


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