CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Mexico's most hotly contested political race in 60 years will end Sunday when residents of the independent-minded desert state of Chihuahua vote for governor, mayors and state legislators.
But even before the first ballots are cast, it is evident that Chihuahua has undergone a revolution of sorts. Voters speak of this campaign as a contest of two parties with equal chances to win. Until recently, such an attitude was unheard of in Mexico.
In previous years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominates politics in Mexico, was considered the sure winner, by hook or by crook, of all but a handful of electoral races nationwide. Other parties took office only at the pleasure of the PRI, as it is known by its Spanish initials.
Change in Mentality
"People used to ask, 'Why vote for an opposition party if the PRI is going to win anyway?' No one asks that now," said Francisco Barrio, the gubernatorial candidate for the conservative National Action Party, the main opposition in Chihuahua. "That is an important change in the mentality of the population."
The question that will be answered Sunday is whether this new attitude can be translated into a transfer of significant political power to an opposition force. Such a result could open the way for opposition triumphs elsewhere and fundamentally alter the balance of political power in Mexico.
"All of Mexico is watching Chihuahua," said Hector Chavez, a political scientist here. "The effect of an opposition victory would be to encourage other opponents of the PRI to participate actively in elections, to believe in elections."
View From Washington
The results also will be closely watched in Washington, where a debate has sprung up over the effectiveness and stability of Mexico's political system. Some U.S. senators recently called for official U.S. scrutiny of the voting process as a means of checking fraud. Mexican officials roundly denounced the call as intervention in Mexico's internal affairs.
Despite popular dissatisfaction over economic problems and persistent perceptions among voters that the Institutional Revolutionary Party is corrupt, the ruling party is predicting victory in Chihuahua. It expects to sweep the major races, including the governorship and the mayoralties of Chihuahua City, which is the state capital, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua's largest metropolis, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
A party document made available to The Times claims a steady increase in support for the party since 1983, when it conceded seven town halls, including those in Juarez and Chihuahua City, to the National Action Party.
The document predicts a 65% vote for the ruling party statewide.
National Action, or the PAN as it is widely known, predicted victory for Barrio and for its mayoral candidates in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez but has released no polling data.
67 Mayoral Posts
In all, the governor's office, 67 mayoral posts and 14 state legislative seats are at stake in Sunday's voting. There are 1.2 million voters in Chihuahua.
The contest for governor is the main event Sunday. The ruling party has never lost a statehouse anywhere in Mexico. Governorships have been considered part of a six-decade monopoly on power that includes the party's hold on the presidency, all senatorships, most deputy posts in congress and all but a few mayoralties.
The governor's race pits the ruling party's Fernando Baeza, a lawyer and deputy from the Chihuahua town of Delicias, against Barrio, who three years ago was the surprise winner for mayor in Ciudad Juarez.
Baeza and his party have been campaigning for six months. Barrio's National Action Party has countered with a month of rallies, protests, horn-honking and poster-pasting.
Baeza, 44, has practically run against his own party's past. Many of his posters omit the party's green, white and red emblem. He speaks against corruption.
"The PRI must take the lead, our party must substitute corrupt public servants, we must be the arch-enemies of corruption and of those bad public servants betraying the PRI and the country," he said in a recent speech in Ciudad Juarez.
His party has nevertheless given Baeza full support. His campaign posters have been hanging in Chihuahua since January. State-owned television stations featured interviews with Baeza and none with Barrio.
Unions affiliated with the ruling party are busing workers to the polls; taxi drivers who get their work permits from the party's organizations are being pressed to drive voters to the polling stations.
Charisma and Cowboy Boots
The National Action Party's candidate, Barrio, 35, is the first Mexican politician in recent memory to be characterized as having charisma. An accountant by trade, he nonetheless favors dressing in cowboy hats and boots. Supporters fondly call him Pancho, a nickname that links Barrio with frontier revolutionary Pancho Villa, historically one of Chihuahua's favorite sons.