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Mexican Opposition Faces Test of Strength

Hopes for ousting longtime ruling party could turn on key Michoacan state election

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 1992



CIUDAD HIDALGO, MEXICO

A HOMEMADE campaign poster hangs by a tattered cord around his neck, but Augustin Diaz Lopez does not know much beyond the name of the candidate.

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"I just hope that because he's with President Salinas, he can get us an irrigation dam. We want to grow something besides corn," explains the campesino.

Mr. Lopez is among several thousand waiting in the town plaza under a blazing sun for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial candidate. Venders hawk popsicles, a mariachi band croons, and teenage girls in shorts and PRI T-shirts play volleyball.

"Augustin came with me. We brought a whole bus load," brags Pedro Hernandez Hernandez, introducing himself as the Solidarity committee head in Irimbo, a nearby town. Solidarity is the grass-roots government public works program.

Mr. Hernandez insists "the party didn't offer us any money to come." But he later admits, "The party will help with gasoline.... If they offer to feed us lunch, well, of course we'll accept."

The PRI election machine is in high gear in Michoacan.

Although only one of a dozen state elections in coming months, the race here could be the critical fork in the Mexican political highway, analysts say. The 1994 presidential elections could turn on the results of Sunday's vote in Michoacan.

"These elections have tremendous symbolic importance. We're talking about the future of democracy, of political plurality in Mexico," says Jose Agustin Ortiz Pinchetti, a lawyer and spokesman for several nongovernmental electoral observer groups.

Michoacan is the bastion of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano. A former PRI governor of this poor farming state and son of a Mexican president, Mr. Cardenas left the PRI and formed a coalition of left and center-left parties under the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) in 1988.

Cardenas shocked everyone by nearly defeating President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and toppling the PRI's six-decade presidential dynasty. Indeed, some analysts say that if not for PRI fraud, Cardenas would be president today. Cardenas beat Salinas by a 3-to-1 margin in Michoacan, which in 1989 became the first and only state where the PRI holds less than half of the mayorships.

Cardenas is widely expected to take another run at the presidency in 1994. But if his PRD party loses here, he may be stopped in his tracks.

"This is very important for Cardenas and the party," says Eduardo Nava Hernandez, a political scientist at the University of Michoacan. "It's the only real possibility the PRD has to win a governorship. If they don't win Michoacan, Cardenas's ability to win the presidency or even the candidacy will greatly diminish."

PRI officials are well aware of the stakes. Privately, they admit they would like nothing more than to crush the party that embarrassed them in 1988. In the past, the PRI would have used any means possible to win in Michoacan. Fraud and free trade pact

But President Salinas has a dilemma. He is deeply aware that the taint of electoral fraud could aid United States congressional opponents of a North American Free Trade Agreement. A PRD win might quiet critics and enable Salinas to boast of democratic plurality. Also, Salinas has shown - by reversing official PRI gubernatorial wins in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi last year - that he does not want political instability to jeopardize Mexico's economic recovery by scaring off foreign investment.

And in Michoacan, the threat of instability looms large. Claiming fraud in the July 1989 state congressional elections, the PRD occupied all 113 town halls. Roads were blocked. PRI and PRD demonstrations in Morelia, the capital, ended with 40 injuries. The fighting continued following the December 1989 municipal elections. At least one person was killed. Calm was restored in early 1990 when the PRI agreed to joint rule in 12 towns in which it had claimed victory.