Mexicans disillusioned with ruling party? State elections Sunday may show political opposition gaining ground

Quer'etaro and Guanajuato are magical names to most Mexicans, linked to the main historical events in Mexico's life as a nation. Today, these two cities, and the states that bear their names, are the centers of gubernatorial races that exemplify the problems Mexico's ruling party faces in running the country.

If the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) can deal with the country's problems and reform itself, it has a good chance of ruling Mexico for at least another ten years, say political analysts. If it cannot, and popular support for PRI continues to erode, many observers believe the party will have two choices: become more dictatorial or slowly lose control of the situation.

The problems facing PRI include a general disillusionment by Mexicans with a government blemished by revelations of corruption and an economy that has serious problems.

The PRI seems set to win these two races. But analysts predict the opposition could win the governorship in at least one of the other five states holding elections on Sunday.

The PRI has held power since the 1920s and its candidates have won every contest at the national level since the party was formed. It presently controls the Congress, almost all mayoral posts, and all of the legislatures in Mexico's 31 states. The PRI also maintains the support of Mexico's major labor organizations and peasant groups.

In Quer'etaro and Guanajuato, unlike some regions in northern Mexico, the largest opposition party, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), has little chance of snatching the governor's seat away from the ruling party. The opposition is given its best chance of victory in Nuevo Le'on.

In Quer'etaro and Guanajuato, as in 28 of Mexico's 29 other states, PRI clearly has the votes of a majority of the population. But more and more voters seem to support it out of habit or the lack of a perceived alternative.

The comments of a young peasant sitting in the main square of the village of Dolores Hidalgo, where the country's war of independence against Spain started, sum up the problems the PRI faces: ``I will vote for the PRI, because who else should I vote for?

``But these politicians are all alike. When they campaign, they promise you their father and their mother, but when they come to power, they don't know you anymore.

``Some people will vote for the other parties, but I won't. What's the use?''

PRI supporters blame the party's problems on the severe economic crisis Mexico has been experiencing since 1982, when the price of oil, its main export, fell.

Those opposed to PRI cite revelations of corruption in previous administrations as well as the party's inability to resolve the country's social problems or raise economic productivity. They say the party has simply been in power too long.

To counter this criticism, the PRI has put up ``new broom'' candidates in Quer'etaro and Guanajuato -- men it hopes will convince the voters that the PRI can renew itself. Many see the outgoing governors in these two states as personifying what is wrong with the system.

The PRI's new-styled candidate for governor is Mariano Palacios Alcocer. A lawyer in his early 30s, Mr. Palacios is also a respected academician who was rector of the Quer'etaro state university in the early '80s. Palacios, who is currently a senator representing Quer'etaro in the National Congress, has been the boy wonder of Mexican politics.

At age 20 he already held important positions in local politics. If he wins his race Sunday he will be one of the youngest governors in Mexican history. Slight in build and softspoken, Mr. Palacios nevertheless has charisma. Voters see it as a plus that he is very different from the traditional, somewhat bombastic PRI politician.

Palacios represents a break with tradition -- having lived and worked in the state most of his life. PRI's gubernatorial candidates, are named not by party primaries but rather by Mexico's president. Often gubernatorial candidates have been people with some intense loyalty to the PRI, but who have had few roots in the state they were to govern, and who have spent most of their careers climbing the political ladder in Mexico City.

As popular disillusion increases, voters who formerly were passive have become less and less willing to accept what they perceive as ``outsiders'' sent to govern them from Mexico City.

PAN's candidate, Francisco Ugalde, is a conservative, white-haired, and courtly doctor. He has conducted a vigorous campaign not only among the urban middle class but also in the countryside, capitalizing on the discontent of peasants who still live in great poverty.

[Reuters reported yesterday that a member of the leftist United Socialist Party of Mexico seeking office in Sunday's election was kidnapped from his home in Mexico City Monday.]

The political trend in Quer'etaro as throughout Mexico, is that PAN and other right-wing parties have been growing increasingly strong in the cities. PRI has traditionally won elections because of the overwhelming vote margins it can still deliver in rural areas.

However, as the states and the country become increasingly urbanized, some observers say PRI might in a few years either lose the states or hold onto it only through electoral fraud, unless candidates like Palacios can make significant long-term differences. Such fraud, they say, could provoke large-scale opposition violence, which would have to be met by government force.

Even now many analysts wonder to what extent PRI will be willing to recognize any opposition party victories that might come out of Sunday's elections.

First of two articles. Friday: election prospects in a state where an opposition party may win.

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