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State Elections to Test Mexico's Ruling Party : Opposition Parties Pose Stiff Challenge to PRI and President Salinas' Commitment to Reform

June 18, 1989|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

CHILCHOTA, Mexico — The purple scar that cuts across Carmen Zalpa's nose and under her left eye has become a badge of courage for the Indian woman who heads a village committee in support of leftist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Zalpa was hit in the face by a brick last month during a confrontation with police who were escorting the ruling party's candidate for the state assembly on a campaign swing through her village of Acachuen.

To protest the incident, Zalpa and dozens of other peasants have occupied the city hall in this rural town in the state of Michoacan and have built stone barricades in the streets to prevent the police from evicting them. They are demanding the dismissal of the Institutional Revolutionary Party mayor, local justice officials and the six-member local police force, and are calling for honest state assembly elections July 2.

"Before, it was joy that made me a Cardenista . Now it is anger," Zalpa said. "We will vote legally next month, and we will win. If not, we are willing to die here."

Test for Salinas

Although the election is for the traditionally powerless state legislature, it has taken on national importance as a test for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's commitment to democracy and political reform. It is one of three hotly contested state elections that will be held on the same day.

In Baja California, the PRI, as the ruling party is called, faces stiff competition in the gubernatorial race from the rightist National Action Party, whose candidate, a popular former mayor of Ensenada, is tied with the PRI candidate in the polls. In its 60 years, the PRI has never lost an election for governor.

Municipal and legislative elections also will take place in the state of Chihuahua, another stronghold of the National Action Party, called by its Spanish initials, PAN. The right-wing party held seven mayoralties there from 1983 to 1986, including Ciudad Juarez on the border and Chihuahua City, the state capital. These cities as well as the governorship were claimed by the PRI in 1986 elections that the PAN charged were fraudulent.

But while all three state races are expected to be close, it is in Michoacan that the PRI may face its toughest challenge to maintain order and the legitimacy of the election. Here, the name Cardenas is nearly sacred and the Cardenistas are militant.

Cardenas' father, Gen. Lazaro Cardenas, was one of the country's most beloved presidents. He is regarded as a national hero for expropriating the nation's oil industry in the 1930s. After his term, the general returned home and, for the next 30 years, acted as benefactor, channeling demands of the poor to the government.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was a popular governor of this Indian farming state before he broke with the ruling party to run for president last July. Many of the peasants note proudly that Cardenas has dark skin, as they do.

In the presidential election, Cardenas won 64% of the vote in Michoacan. His coalition of parties took 12 of the state's 13 seats in the lower house of the federal legislature, an unprecedented opposition victory.

With their new-found strength, Cardenas' supporters occupied more than 50 city halls last fall to demand the removal of Michoacan Gov. Luis Martinez Villacana. Martinez Villacana, who followed Cardenas into office, has fired hundreds of Cardenas supporters from state government posts and overturned many of his policies. Ironically, many Cardenas policies, such as a ban on weekend liquor sales, were unpopular until the new governor reversed them.

Removed 2 Governors

Among Salinas' first acts as president was the removal of Martinez Villacana, along with the equally disliked governor of Baja California, Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera. Although the latter's term is up this year, the Michoacan term has two years to run. The PRI-dominated state legislature named Genovevo Figueroa as interim governor but, theoretically, a new legislature with a Cardenista majority could appoint a governor to complete the term.

The PRI, therefore, is running hard in the race for 18 legislative seats, and it is campaigning from the awkward position of both incumbent party and opposition. National PRI President Luis Donaldo Colosio has made five trips to Michoacan and plans another before the vote.

"We're dedicating three days a week to these elections (in Baja California and Michoacan) and the other three days to the rest of the country," Colosio said.

The PRI moved from its old offices in downtown Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, to four floors of a modern high-rise building that also houses the federal secretaries of treasury and budget and planning. The party has set up an elaborate campaign structure with 26 departments, including ecology and sports. The national party has sent in dozens of campaign workers, several of whom expect to remain through mayoral elections scheduled for November.

Among the Poorest States

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