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Close Vote for Governor Hurts PRI's Standing

Mexico: The longtime ruling party's thin lead in Tabasco could presage an 'open fight' for leadership.


MEXICO CITY — A governor's race viewed as pivotal for Mexico's longtime ruling party was too close to call Monday, leading to predictions of an intensified power struggle in the floundering party and increased uncertainty as the country approaches a historic hand-over of the presidency.

With 93% of the vote counted from Sunday's election in Tabasco state, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party had a mere 1 percentage point lead over his nearest rival. The surprisingly close vote marked a setback for the party, known by its Spanish initials PRI, which had long dominated the oil-rich southern state.

More significant, the result appeared to damage the fortunes of the man considered the front-runner to lead the PRI--current Tabasco Gov. Roberto Madrazo. He had hoped to use a victory by his protege, PRI candidate Manuel Andrade, as a springboard to take over a party damaged by its first presidential defeat ever last July.

"It looks like an open fight in the PRI" for the party leadership, said political scientist Federico Estevez of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

State electoral officials said Andrade, a longtime politician, had 44.13% of the vote, followed by 43.13% for businessman Cesar Raul Ojeda of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, with the rest of the vote split among nine other candidates. A final result was not expected before Wednesday.

But the uncertainty could persist even longer. The PRD and the third-place finisher, the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, vowed to contest the balloting at polling stations where they insisted that vote-buying and other irregularities had occurred. Many predicted that the dispute could erupt in demonstrations in a state famous for bitter electoral clashes.

Both the PRI and the PRD insisted that they would not back down from their claims of victory.

"We are winning this election, and we will not recognize any other result," Ojeda told Mexican radio early Monday.

The PRI, which exercised near one-party rule in Mexico for 71 years, has been in disarray since losing the presidency in July to Vicente Fox, a PAN businessman who takes office in December. Compounding its difficulties, it was defeated in August in the governor's race in Chiapas, another southern bulwark for the party.

The PRI had hoped to come off the ropes in Tabasco, where the charismatic Madrazo enjoys strong approval ratings. But the party splintered before the election, with dissenters bolting to other parties, complaining of Madrazo's iron-fisted control of the state. The campaign was marred by charges that the state government had promoted vote-buying and a virtual blackout by local media of opposition candidates.

The results of the Tabasco race appeared to weaken Madrazo's claim to be the politician who could unite the PRI.

"It doesn't really signal that he has the mandate to lead the PRI," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But he said the PRI is such a shambles that Madrazo could still win the party presidency as long as his candidate squeaks to victory in Tabasco.

Madrazo is linked to a PRI wing of old-style political bosses who are associated with vote fraud but also deliver services to voters. He has clashed repeatedly with President Ernesto Zedillo, of the party's "technocrat" wing of U.S.-educated reformers.

While President-elect Fox is also considered a reformer, many analysts believe he would have benefited from an electoral victory by the PRI old guard in Tabasco.

If Madrazo were strengthened, "clearly Fox would have an interlocutor, someone who conceivably had the mandate to speak on behalf of the party," said Peschard-Sverdrup. That is important because the new president lacks a majority in Congress and will need to negotiate with the PRI, which still controls the largest bloc of federal legislators.

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