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In Mexico, social unrest reflects rising expectations

Local protests have become overriding themes in the disputed presidential race.

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"The PRI bet that the traditional way of doing things would work," says Gloria Zafra, a sociologist at the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca. "But the people changed."

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The power struggle in Oaxaca has drawn other embittered residents, protesters say, including activists from San Salvador Atenco, where the May demonstrations took place. One banner for "Radio Kapucha," a radio station formed by activists from Chiapas, makes reference to a crusade launched by Zapatista rebel leader "Subcomandante Marcos" this winter to expose what he called the inadequacy of all three main presidential candidates.

"It is time that we all come together and participate," says Mari Gutierrez, who teaches religion classes outside Oaxaca City and has joined a group of Catholic organizations camping out in the zocalo. "A lot of us are becoming conscious that the government [officials] are liars, and we need to join the people's fight against inequality and injustice."

Runner-up López Obrador, who lost by 244,000 votes, has submitted claims of voter fraud and requests for a full recount to the nation's top electoral court, which has until Sept. 6 to certify a winner. He announced at a rally last Sunday that he would launch a campaign of civil disobedience if his request for a recount were not granted.

No matter who wins, experts say, Mexico's next president will struggle gaining legitimacy in the eyes of a significant part of the population.

"This is a very contested election," says Ms. Fuentes-Berain. She says she does not expect unrest to replicate itself across the country, because Oaxaca and San Salvador Atenco are examples of movements that have been taken over by radical factions.

"But what we are seeing now is worrisome proof of how ungovernable a state can turn when there is no real good faith [effort] at negotiation ... on both sides," she says, referring to talks between the striking teachers and the government.

Protestors in Oaxaca are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss their next steps, says Father Mayren Pelaez. They had refused to negotiate any terms until Ruiz steps down, but they could reconsider that stance, he says. "If that happens, we have hope of beginning to talk again," he says.

But many protestors say that their goals stretch beyond the political future of Ruiz. Florentino López Martinez, a member of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), the umbrella organization for the protest in Oaxaca City, says their struggle could become a national cause against the "neoliberal politics" that have defined Mexico as it has opened its markets to global competition.

"We are against repression, and we could provide unity for all the country," he says, "where the pueblo is fighting against the rich."

In voicing such rhetoric, the group has raised the stakes of the protest, with no clear end in sight. "[A solution] might take a long time, and a dramatic response," says Francisco Toledo, a famous Mexican artist in Oaxaca who has joined Father Mayren Pelaez as a mediator.