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Mexico's PRI Declares Victory in Coahuila State : Elections: Opposition charges fraud. Ruling party dominance could affect U.S. support for free trade pact.

September 28, 1993|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Amid cries of foul from the opposition, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party declared its candidate the overwhelming victor Monday in a hotly contested governor's race in Mexico's northern border state of Coahuila.

"We won well and we are very happy and satisfied with the result," Rogelio Montemayor Seguy, a U.S.-trained economist and the ruling party candidate, told reporters in the state capital of Saltillo.

Official returns are not expected until Friday. But partial tallies released by the ruling party gave Montemayor 64% of the votes cast, more than double the total of his chief challenger, former Saltillo Mayor Rosendo Villarreal Davila of the opposition National Action Party. Villarreal garnered 26% of the vote.

Sunday's election was seen by many as a test of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's much-heralded commitment to reforming a political system long dominated by his party, known by its Spanish acronym as the PRI. The PRI, which has won every presidential election since its creation in 1929, also controls 28 of the nation's 31 statehouses, as well as the Federal District of Mexico City.

The single-party preeminence has prompted concern among many U.S. lawmakers who are contemplating passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the centerpiece of Salinas' economic recovery initiative. Less than a year before Mexico's next presidential election year, many critics in both nations have expressed doubts that Salinas is as wedded to democratic change as he is to his economic reforms.

Consequently, analysts say, the latest opposition charges of widespread electoral irregularities--including ballot-stuffing and multiple votes cast by individuals--cannot be comforting to the president and his party as they brace for the results of the free trade debate in Washington.

"Unfortunately, the PRI and the government did not take advantage of the opportunity to have a true democratic election in Coahuila," said Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, a spokesman for the defeated National Action Party. "It was an unequal process that put our party and others at a complete disadvantage."

National Action--a conservative party that is the nation's second electoral force--governs in two northern border states, Baja California and Chihuahua. National Action activists were hopeful that Coahuila, just across the Rio Grande from Texas' Big Bend region, would become the third border state under their blue-and-white banner.

For the first time, state voters used new, supposedly fraud-proof identification cards, which include bearers' photographs, fingerprints and other safety measures.

Before the voting booths closed, however, opposition activists immediately charged the PRI with electoral chicanery--of which the party has long been accused.

In particular, opponents were enraged at what they called the miserable failure of a supposed electoral safeguard: the application of indelible ink on voters' thumbs to ensure that no one would cast more than one ballot.

A yellow ink was initially chosen, but tests showed that the substance irritates skin, prompting the last-minute substitution of a red ink. But the substitute ink could be easily removed, critics charged, voiding its effectiveness.

Montemayor, a longtime federal congressman, called the ink affair "irrelevant."

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