Musicians play during a campaign rally for Eruviel Avila, candidate for… (Miguel Tovar, Associated…)
Reporting from Mexico City — State elections this weekend in Mexico are shaping up as a revealing test of whether the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, on a steady march to retake the presidential palace, has changed its old autocratic ways.
The party, which ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 70 years but lost the presidency in 2000, insists it has reformed and modernized, and it is handily capitalizing on public anger at rising violence and a sluggish economy to make significant gains. The PRI, its initials in Spanish, is expected to coast to victory in the all-important race for governor in Mexico state and is leading in opinion polls in two other states that will vote Sunday.
In Mexico state, the region of 15 million people that hugs this capital, political parties opposed to the PRI are crying foul.
On Wednesday, they demanded that the results of Sunday's election be nullified because of what they allege are egregious campaign-spending abuses by the PRI and its candidate, Eruviel Avila. The statehouse there is already controlled by the PRI, and the outgoing governor, Enrique Pena Nieto, a PRI member, is the early favorite to win the presidency next year.
The alleged campaign violations, including the use of state money to buy votes, represent a throwback to the patronage politics of the PRI of past decades, the opponents said. And allowing PRI operatives to get away with it now means there will be no holding them back in the 2012 presidential race, they said.
"Accepting this would be signing a blank check for 2012," said Manuel Camacho Solis, a senior advisor for the left and former mayor of Mexico City. "The problem isn't the PRI winning, it's that the old PRI is returning with all the practices of an autocratic regime."
Camacho Solis, meeting with international news media, accused the PRI campaign of exceeding spending limits by millions of pesos and of using state-financed food distribution and other social programs to lure voters.
PRI operatives have been handing out everything from rice, paint and cement to gym-class memberships and debit cards in Mexico state. This kind of payola is a time-honored tradition in Mexico and not necessarily illegal, unless state money or goods are involved, as Camacho Solis alleged.
Camacho Solis said state government employees also are working on the campaign. He aired a video that appeared to show students at a public school being assigned to make political banners for Avila.
Camacho Solis, speaking on behalf of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and a smaller party allied with it, said the groups are asking an electoral court to disqualify Avila and void the results of Sunday's vote. There have been reports that the PRI's other opponent, the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, will make a similar appeal.
There is precedent for an election to be nullified, but the demands may be more of a tactic to sway the 2012 race.
Jorge Buendia, a political analyst and pollster, said the PRI has been effective at "changing faces" by adding newer and younger politicians to the mix. He noted that Avila is a visibly younger candidate and that his two gray-haired opponents, the PRD's Alejandro Encinas and the PAN's Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, ran for the same office two decades ago.
But, he said, the PRI has been less convincing in changing its practices. "It's new wine in old bottles," Buendia said.
In Mexico under single-party PRI rule, the president was an omnipotent figure, and authority was rigidly centralized in his office. The PRI had also come to dominate unions, the media and most institutions.
In the last two decades, thanks in part to democratic reforms passed in the 1990s, Mexico has undergone important political change. There are more parties and, within the parties, more factions. The pluralism and the fragmentation serve as counterweights to absolute power by a president and his party. And though still a long way from exemplary, the Supreme Court and the legislature have proved themselves more independent than of old.
Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a PRI veteran and president of the Senate, said many members of the party have "learned the lessons" of defeat in two successive presidential races, 2000 and 2006, and have embraced reform.
"The PRI cannot go back to thinking of a system that revolves around a single man," he said.
President Felipe Calderon, of the PAN, has made several unusually blunt attempts to remind voters of the darker chapters under PRI rule.
This month, in a speech at Stanford University that was widely reported in Mexico, Calderon spoke of an "autocratic regime … where a single party controlled everything, what was allowed to be said and taught in the schools."
"And when students … protested, they were massacred," Calderon said, alluding to the 1968 killing by security forces of a large and still-disputed number of student and civilian protesters.
A week earlier Calderon's government arrested the former mayor of Tijuana, gaming magnate Jorge Hank Rohn, on corruption and weapons charges. Hank is a major PRI figure, his father was a party legend, and many Mexicans suspected a political ulterior motive. Hank was freed and charges dropped.
None of this seems to have hurt Avila, whose poll numbers remain large and steady, "as if he were Teflon," said analyst Alfonso Zarate.