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Mexico Ruling Party Suffers Setback

Politics: Early returns in crucial state of Morelos show PRI losing control over key cities.

March 18, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The party that has governed Mexico for nearly seven decades was headed for several bitter defeats Monday in elections in the state of Morelos, setting the stage for a series of midterm polls expected to redraw the nation's political landscape this year.

With more than 80% of the vote counted in the strategic state near the nation's capital, election officials said the results of Sunday's voting showed the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, losing key mayoral contests in major cities. The PRI also appeared poised to lose its majority in the state legislature for the first time in the 68 years it has ruled most of this nation.

State election board member Humberto Valverde Prado said the municipal tallies will not be complete until Wednesday; state legislative results will be final Sunday. But he said the preliminary returns showed clear "tendencies" toward PRI defeats in at least 10 major cities and towns and gave the party just a third of the vote in the state legislature.

Crime, corruption and other national issues were central campaign themes, and many analysts viewed the preliminary results as a harbinger of crucial July elections for Mexico City's mayor and the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the nation's Congress.

"These results are broadly representative of what we're going to wind up seeing in July, at least in this region," said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico in Mexico City. "It seems the well has run dry for the PRI in the electorate here."

Despite the clear protest vote against the ruling party in many parts of the agricultural and industrial state, partial returns Monday showed the PRI was headed for victories in well over half of 33 mostly small, rural municipalities.

But the PRI controlled all except one of those town halls before Sunday's vote. It was losing in some of Morelos' largest and most important cities, and running second to the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, in a struggle to maintain control of the state legislature, where it has held an overwhelming majority through most of the century.

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Loss of the state legislature would give a combined opposition force control over the state's budget and cut into the power of the PRI governor, Jorge Carrillo Olea.

The ruling party's worst symbolic defeat would be in Cuernavaca, the sprawling state capital about 25 miles south of Mexico City. There, the PRI candidate--daughter of a former ruling party Morelos governor--was running "neck and neck" with the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, Valverde said. The PAN has become Mexico's largest opposition group during the past two years by winning governorships and mayoral races in some of Mexico's largest cities.

"The PRI made an extraordinary effort to win Cuernavaca, but they still failed miserably," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, an independent congressman from Morelos, who stressed that the PRI always has won the state capital by landslides. About statewide returns, he said: "This is a landslide for the opposition and especially for the PRD."

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The biggest emerging winner from the 860,000 votes cast Sunday did appear to be the PRD, which was leading in at least nine municipalities, including the state's third-largest city, Cuautla. This is the party's strongest showing in two years of key state contests.

A wave of kidnappings in and near Cuautla in recent years--and widespread allegations of police involvement in those crimes--spawned activist citizens groups that backed the PRD and its mayoral candidate, an insurance salesman who had won half the vote tallied Monday, compared with just 28% won by the PRI candidate.

The PRD also was far ahead in Tepoztlan, a weekend retreat for Mexico City's wealthy and political elite. The town has become synonymous with near-anarchy in the two years since local peasants ousted the PRI mayor and seized Town Hall. Local activists said the PRD's showing there reflected widespread frustration with the ruling party that is shared in parts of the nation's nearby capital.

Monday's emerging PRD victories appeared to boost the chances of the party's candidate for Mexico City mayor, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Cardenas, who finished a distant third to the ruling party's Ernesto Zedillo and the PAN candidate in the 1994 presidential polls, officially launched his campaign here Sunday.

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