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State Race Shows Rift in Mexico's PRI

Rival factions in the party back different candidates. Outcome of today's gubernatorial election in Oaxaca has national implications.

August 01, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

OAXACA, Mexico — After a strange and violent gubernatorial campaign marked by a faked assassination attempt on the incumbent, voters in the state of Oaxaca go to the polls today in a midterm Mexican election that lays bare the divisions in the once-invincible Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Polls show Ulises Ruiz, the candidate for the PRI, as the party is known, in a dead heat with Gabino Cue, a former PRI-ista who represents an alliance of opposing parties.

The close race shows how far the PRI has fallen in this poor, rural state of 3.5 million where it has ruled since the Mexican Revolution and where its dominance once went unchallenged. The PRI machinery still controls the outlying countryside but has lost significant support here in the state capital and other urban areas.

Oaxaca is also seen as a "proxy" contest between rival factions in the PRI, which is deeply divided over its 2006 presidential nominee, said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, head of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This is more than just a state-level election, and that's what makes it so interesting," Peschard-Sverdrup said. "It has a lot to do with the warring factions of the PRI."

The Oaxaca vote has captured nationwide attention because of fears that election fraud could tilt the results and bring undercurrents of violence to the surface. On Wednesday, a brawl between opposing factions in remote Huautla township left a retired schoolteacher dead and dozens of others injured.

Whoever wins, a close result is likely to produce post-electoral skirmishes, political scientist Federico Estevez said.

"The conditions are there, the opposing machines are there, the simmering conflicts in all kinds of areas are there," said Estevez, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"On top of it, you may have razor-thin margins in some places, and that creates problems. People never believe they lost by 100 votes," he said.

Observers believe that the election will end up in the lap of the Federal Election Tribunal, which has stepped in to referee two Mexican gubernatorial elections since it was formed in 1996.

"I expect problems," said Isidoro Yescas of the Benito Juarez Autonomous University in Oaxaca. "Sympathies are extremely polarized. The death this week of the partisan in Huautla shows the police may not be able to provide security for voters."

The election is seen as the best chance that President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, has of dislodging the PRI from one of its governorships, and of giving the PAN perhaps its most important local victory since Fox took office in 2000.

So far, the PAN has been unable to build local momentum from Fox's historic victory against a party that had ruled Mexico for seven decades.

The conservative PAN, the leftist Democratic Revolution Party and the small Convergence party have formed an alliance to back Cue, the mayor of this capital city, against PRI standard-bearer Ruiz.

Ruiz is backed by PRI President Roberto Madrazo, who is the front-runner for the party's 2006 nomination. Madrazo's opponents within the party are backing Cue, believing that his victory in this PRI bastion would cost Madrazo so much prestige that his nomination drive could be derailed.

"Oaxaca reflects the internal struggle going on inside the PRI, a local fight with national implications," said Jorge Javier Romero, a political scientist at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City.

Cue's PRI backers reportedly include former Oaxaca Gov. Diodoro Carrasco and teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, both bitter Madrazo foes. Their dissident PRI faction has formed an alliance with the PAN to defeat Ruiz and, by extension, Madrazo, observers say.

"The PRI dissidents need to wound Madrazo, to get him to lose an election this year, and it looks like Oaxaca is the best bet," Estevez said.

Madrazo helped pull the PRI together after its crushing defeat by Fox in 2000. He engineered key gubernatorial victories in Nuevo Leon and Sonora states in 2003 and in Chihuahua last month. But he carries considerable baggage, including his allegedly fraudulent victory in the 1994 Tabasco state gubernatorial race, that may make him unelectable in 2006, many in his party believe.

Some say Madrazo has not been helped nationally by his close alliance with incumbent Oaxaca Gov. Jose Murat, a voluble throwback to the PRI's old-style cacique, or authoritarian boss, brand of leadership.

In an incident that set the campaign's violent tone, Murat claimed in March that he had been the victim of an assassination attempt in which his car was shot up and a policeman was killed.

An investigation by the federal attorney general's office found that the shooting had been staged by Murat's bodyguards, perhaps in a bid for voter sympathy.

Now prosecutors are investigating Murat for giving false testimony, a crime punishable by up to six years in prison.

John Womack, a Harvard University history professor, said violence in Oaxaca and the political instability it might create could have reverberations in other southern states, a potential "domino problem."

"Oaxaca matters because it is a big, poor state where there has been guerrilla activity," Womack said. "People are scared of something going wrong, causing a guerrilla bunch to shoot up a police station and causing interest rates to go up."

Elections for governor will also be held in Aguascalientes state. In Baja California, voters will chose five mayors and 25 members of the state's Congress.

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