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Mexico Election May Hark Back to '94 State Race

The two candidates who battled brutally for governor of Tabasco are running for president.

November 28, 2005|Hector Tobar and Cecilia Sanchez | Times Staff Writers

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico — Anyone interested in knowing how much uglier Mexico's presidential campaign could get need only travel to this city in the oil-patch state of Tabasco.

People here still argue about the battle royal that Roberto Madrazo and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waged 11 years ago in the Tabasco gubernatorial race.

Now the two tabasquenos are front-runners in the three-way campaign to win the July 2006 presidential election, with ruling-party candidate Felipe Calderon third in most polls. The prospect of another Tabasco brawl makes some people here very nervous.

"The 1994 elections left the state divided," said Tomas Romero, a Villahermosa taxi driver. "Even now, there are families that are split over it. Those who support Madrazo don't talk to their relatives who support Lopez Obrador."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican election -- An article in Monday's Section A referred to massive fraud in the 1994 Mexican presidential election. The reference should have been to the 1988 election, in which opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was widely believed to have been denied victory over ruling party incumbent Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Madrazo won the 1994 election, a bitterly fought contest that hinted at the deeper transformations in Mexican politics. It was a race, like many in Mexico, tinged with accusations of vote-buying, demagoguery and backroom deals.

Even though he lost, Lopez Obrador was propelled onto the national stage, eventually becoming mayor of Mexico City.

And even though his victory was tainted by the vote-buying allegations, Madrazo's fight to hold on to the governorship helped him gain control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which lorded over Mexico for much of the 20th century and is still the largest political party in the country.

"What Tabasco has in them are two people who are very similar," said Oscar Montero, an attorney. "Both move the masses and are demagogues who will find it difficult to fulfill their promises. But the people want a caudillo [strongman], no matter what side he's on."

Madrazo is the scion of one of the state's leading political families. His father, Carlos Madrazo, was also governor of Tabasco. The senior Madrazo had argued for democratizing the PRI, and some suspect that he was killed to silence a dissenting voice.

Lopez Obrador, the son of a shopkeeper, cut his teeth with the PRI, doing rank-and-file organizing in the state's remote Indian villages before bolting to the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

"We are two opponents who know each other very well," Madrazo told foreign correspondents in Mexico City this month, after winning the PRI nomination. "We fought one round before; we'll fight another round now."

The 1994 election came during the sunset of the PRI's domination of Mexican politics. That year, the PRD's Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was widely believed to have been denied victory in the presidential election over PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo thanks to a massive fraud.

Like Cardenas, Lopez Obrador fashioned himself in 1994 as a leader who had come to put an end to the PRI's domination and give a voice to working people and the poor.

"Without a doubt, Lopez Obrador awakened democracy in the state," said Alberto Rodriguez, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Tabasco. "He confronted the PRI, and he's still making them suffer."

Critics charge that Madrazo overcame Lopez Obrador's charismatic populism with a massive -- and illegal -- infusion of cash.

"Madrazo's campaign was incredibly expensive. It was grotesque," historian Javier Nucamendi said. "He'd fly from town to town in a helicopter. He'd give away everything from hats to construction material."

Madrazo's campaign was alleged to have spent $70 million, about 60 times the legal limit. Although the allegations were never proved, there was enough of a whiff of fraud for Zedillo to ask Madrazo to step down.

In an earlier era, Madrazo would have begrudgingly complied with the president's request. But Mexico and the PRI were changing. Madrazo refused, casting his fight as one for state independence and party democracy. Zedillo relented.

In a bid to overturn the 1994 election result, Lopez Obrador and his supporters surrounded the Tabasco statehouse, preventing state officials from working for weeks. The conflict helped cement Lopez Obrador's divided public image: Some see him as a fighter for justice, others as a cynical rabble-rouser.

"Lopez Obrador isn't the messiah a lot of people think he is," said Felipe Cardoso, a Villahermosa business owner. "Here he organized marches, strikes, and he assaulted the tranquillity of the state. He loves confrontation."

Later, Lopez Obrador moved to Mexico City. His tenure as mayor from 2000 to 2005 included numerous public works programs and subsidies for senior citizens. His image there as a compassionate but effective administrator is what he is now selling to Mexican voters.

Madrazo, too, has fashioned himself in the presidential campaign as a pragmatic, get-things-done leader, the antidote to President Vicente Fox, who is widely seen as a well-meaning but ineffective reformer.

The race has gotten dirty: Two members of Lopez Obrador's city government were videotaped with businessmen and suitcases filled with millions of dollars. Embarrassing leaks to the media drove Arturo Montiel, Madrazo's chief opponent in the PRI primary, out of the race. Some accused Madrazo of being behind the leaks.

Calderon, the candidate of Fox's National Action Party, is hoping that voter fatigue with his two opponents will help him gain ground in the race.

After one poll this week showed him moving into second place, he announced: "I am the candidate who has come to make these tabasquenos squirm."

*

Tobar reported from Mexico City and Sanchez from Villahermosa.

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