High hopes for Chiapas elections

Following a tumultuous decade, Sunday's vote could promote democratic reform for the state.

When Mexicans booted a seven-decade-old regime from the presidential palace in elections July 2, the world took notice and applauded Mexico's show of solid democratic footing.

This Sunday the vast and diverse southern state of Chiapas - first put on the global map on New Year's Day 1994 by the Zapatista Indian rebellion - would like to achieve a similar coup with a fair, transparent, and peaceful gubernatorial election.

But if delivering fair, fully representative elections in Mexico at the national level was already an achievement, doing the same in troubled Chiapas is an even taller order.

Chiapas has had five different governors since 1993, all but one appointed by Mexico City when election results didn't hold or when events like a 1997 Indian massacre left the place on the brink of ingovernability. The one elected governor lasted two months of a six-year term.

In a state with an unresolved armed conflict, dozens of Indian communities divided by language, custom, religion, and land disputes, and a still-dominant rural population often lacking basic services and crushed by poverty, Sunday's vote represents not just a test of the depth of Mexico's democratic process. It also serves as an indicator of representative democracy's viability in countries of Central America and Andean South America with similar problems and cultural diversity.

"These elections can give Chiapas a government with full legitimacy, something this state hasn't had for at least seven years," says Juan Pedro Viquiera, a noted Chiapas specialist at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. "The combination of a new government at the national level and a legitimately elected governor here can go a long way in beginning to address [the state's] problems."

And just as Mexico's July 2 election was the first presidential election the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost since 1929, the Sunday vote is the first where the PRI can lose in Chiapas. Most recent polls in a state that is recognized as difficult to canvass show the PRI trailing.

"As the first elections in Mexico since July 2, these will be a thermometer of how Mexicans will respond to the PRI's big defeat," adds Dr. Viquiera. Chiapas was one of the few states the PRI won on July 2 because "in a campesino [small farmer] society people tend to vote with the government," he says. "The big question now is how many people who voted for the PRI July 2 will now change because of the victory of [president-elect] Vicente Fox?"

The answer to that question from Mara Mesa Guzmn, who runs a women's weaving cooperative in the PRI-governed Indian community of Tenejapa is - a lot. "After the big change for Mexico July 2," she says, standing behind a glass case of fine multi-colored weavings, "many many people are curious to see what change can do for Chiapas."

Just a fair and transparent election without violence and fraud would be an important change for Chiapas, no matter who won. The race is between two former senators, the PRI's Sami David David, and Pablo Salazar Mendigucha, candidate of an eight-party alliance including Mr. Fox's National Action Party and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. Mr. Salazar is actually a former PRIista, having only resigned from his longtime party and turned "independent" in May 1999.

In a state already short on civility, a race pitting one party against a former member has made for a particularly bitter campaign. With each side claiming the mantle of "peace" but accusing the other of favoring "war," an ugly atmosphere has encouraged the kind of violence that has plagued Chiapas for decades. Several communities have recently experienced land disputes ending in expulsions of families, as campesinos jockey for positions of power before a new government comes in.

Some Chiapanecos who believe they have everything to lose are still betting on a fair election and a positive change for the state.

Augustn Jimenez Lpez is one of those. A recently wed corn farmer when Zapatista rebels burned him out of his home in the Comitn area in 1994, Mr. Jimenez fled to the highlands city of San Cristbal de las Casas. Now a low-paid waiter in a city restaurant, Jimenez and his wife and two children live in a shack on the edge of town on land they now claim.

Jimenez says he has tried for years to get title to the land from the PRI-run city government, "but they can't even get light, water, and drainage to our neighborhood," he says. Despite the fact that most of his neighbors are with the PRI, Jimenez says he's supporting the alliance's Salazar - even though he believes that if Salazar loses it could once again cost him his home.

"The PRI has given Chiapas nothing but promises, but they are good at revenge if you go against them," he says.

Francisco Cordero Moreno, the PRI's municipal president in San Cristobal, doesn't defend past PRI governors he says were "imposed" from the center of a centralized country. But, he says that as an elected governor Mr. David will be different. And he believes a "nationalist" reaction in Chiapas to the Fox government-elect will put David over the top.

After years of intimidation and violence, voter turnout in Chiapas is particularly low, another factor undermining elections results. That's why the state's electoral council has worked especially hard on measures to raise citizen participation, says council president Eduardo Pineda Arenas. "What we have worked for is a 'citizen-ization' of the [state] election process, so that on election day it becomes a work of the people," says Mr. Pineda. "If the people feel the election is theirs and not something the state did, it is legitimized."

The council will set up 4,000 voting sites run by 28,000 trained citizens. For the first time the PRI's opposition will be present at every site. And as part of a special effort to boost voting in many hard-to-reach pockets of the population and cut down on voter abstention, the council is creating nearly 400 new "extraordinary" voting sites. The council's goal is a turnout above 70 percent.

"Mexico showed the world on July 2 that representative democracy does work," says Pineda. "Our challenge in Chiapas is to show Mexico and the world that we can organize elections that are democratic and civil - and to demonstrate through that process that we want to live in peace."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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