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Mexican Leftists Watching Tabasco Election

Today's gubernatorial vote may determine the political fate of former presidential candidate Lopez Obrador and that of his movement.

October 15, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

TACOTALPA, Mexico — If you ask Cesar Ascencio, there isn't much to cheer about in this sun-baked southern town. Jobs are scarce and even shade is hard to come by after trees in the central plaza were chopped down for a renovation that's stalled halfway to nowhere.

"We live in one of the worst pueblos in Mexico," the 72-year-old retiree said. "This place is dead."

A couple of hours later, it came to life, if only for a little while, when hundreds of townspeople gathered at the plaza to hear leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promise to bring help to the nation's poor and vengeance on its rich. The crowd roared.

Lopez Obrador, who lost the July 2 presidential election to free-market candidate Felipe Calderon, isn't running for office. But his political future, and that of his fledgling leftist movement, may rest on today's gubernatorial election in Tabasco, Lopez Obrador's home state. He has spent the last several weeks campaigning for Cesar Raul Ojeda, a fellow member of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, who's making an uphill third bid for governor.

A win by Ojeda, 54, would also be a triumph for Lopez Obrador, whose followers barricaded Mexico City's main boulevard for weeks this summer to protest the national election. Lopez Obrador, who says Calderon won by fraud, plans to install himself as the "legitimate" president in an unofficial inauguration next month. But his fight may be an uphill one too, against perceptions that he'll bring Mexico more trouble than hope.

Support for Lopez Obrador has dwindled since protesters closed down their Mexico City encampments a month ago after judges rejected demands for a national recount. So the former Mexico City mayor returned to Tabasco and has since filled plazas in his bid to secure a victory for Ojeda -- and keep his message alive.

"Lopez Obrador is trying to use Tabasco as a catapult for his movement," said Andres Granier, the 58-year-old former mayor of Villahermosa, the state capital, and Ojeda's opponent. "But it's not going to work."

Granier, who holds a lead of 9 percentage points in polls, is a candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has run the state for seven decades. He has waged an aggressive campaign and was a well-liked mayor, but that doesn't fully explain his advantage.

Lopez Obrador won 56% of the presidential vote in Tabasco and remains wildly popular here. The trouble is, his so-called campaign of civil resistance has scared people off, including admirers such as Gilberto Macias.

Macias was in no mood to talk politics as he waited for his overheated car to cool down off a road just outside town. But he quickly rattled off a wish list for the next governor: better salaries, more jobs, safer streets, more hospitals, new roads.

"The minimum wage here is 44 pesos a day [about $4], and food is expensive, electricity is expensive, toll roads are expensive," he said. "We all want help, but now people are afraid of the 'hard left.' We're not sure anymore if we're talking about Allende in Chile or some kind of totalitarian state."

The takeover of the capital of nearby Oaxaca state this summer by striking teachers has people rethinking their support of Mexico's emerging left, he said. "We don't want any kind of trouble like that here," the 53-year-old taxi driver said.

Another Tabascan, Ciro Perez Gomez, said Lopez Obrador was "a good man who's taken the wrong road."

Ojeda said a vote for him was a vote for Lopez Obrador and for the fight to steer Mexico toward a moderate left that uses government spending and private investment to make jobs, that pays subsidies to farmers to keep them from fleeing to the United States.

"It's a modern left," he said, "with government shouldering its responsibility to the people. How can the state have so much money and yet have so many poor?"

He disagreed that losing the election would hurt Lopez Obrador.

"This movement has its own life," Ojeda said. "A loss would give opponents the chance to say it's over, but I believe the roots are deep."

His PRI opponents, he said, were up to the same old political shenanigans that had kept them in power and soured voters on the party's presidential candidate, former Tabasco Gov. Roberto Madrazo, who finished a distant third in the national election.

Ojeda supporters posted a video on YouTube.com that shows a warehouse with hundreds of new bikes that they allege the PRI had planned to give to voters. The video, indexed under "mapacheo," slang for vote-buying, shows the warehouse being emptied within minutes by passersby after its discovery by Ojeda campaigners.

A PRI spokesman said voter giveaways -- which included cooking pans and food -- were humanitarian aid. He would not say whether the bicycles were the PRI's.

"They think they can buy the vote of the people," Ojeda said. "But we have more dignity than that."

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