Border-State Election Tests Mexican Commitment to Fraud-Free Vote

AS a lifelong backer of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), hairdresser Irma Ituarte sits on one side of a Mexican political divide. On the other side, her daughter, Claudia Dominguez, supports the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

But in a hotly contested July 12 election here in Chihuahua state, mother and daughter are supporting the same opposition candidate for governor.

"Francisco Barrio is handsome. He's got personality," says Ms. Dominguez of the PAN candidate. "He's got a presence," agrees her mother, poking at her breakfast of chilequiles, eggs, and refried beans.

In a nation where the PRI has held a monopoly on power for more than six decades, the chance for an opposition win is drawing attention. In 1989, the PAN won the governorship of Baja California. The party senses another opportunity in Chihuahua.

Opposition hopes are being stoked here not just because the party has a charismatic candidate, but because President Carlos Salinas de Gortari cannot afford the taint of electoral fraud here.

"These elections will probably be as clean as any local election in Mexico gets," opines Frederico Estevez Estevez, a political scientist at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, a private university. "Salinas doesn't need to hand US adversaries of the free-trade agreement an issue that could hurt Mexico's image."

Last year, the PRI officially won the governorships of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi. But allegations of fraud and huge protest marches attracted foreign news coverage and led President Salinas to quietly ask the PRI victors to step down. "Conveying an image of political stability is very important to Salinas and his economic investment program," notes Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a specialist in US-Mexico relations at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Chihuahua - which has one of 12 governorships up for grabs in coming months - is Mexico's largest state, and shares the longest border with the US. Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, are contiguous cities, linked by a few short bridge spans. Fraud allegations here are more likely to make headlines in the US than cooked elections in the Mexican interior.

If the Chihuahua elections result in a narrow PRI victory and the PAN can produce evidence of fraud and generate boisterous demonstrations on the border, many analysts expect a presidential "solution." Indeed, unlike the 1986 campaign, Mr. Barrio is being relatively uncritical of the PRI federal administration. He has even described himself as a "Salinista" on economic issues.

"It's widely believed there's an unwritten agreement that if the PAN doesn't attack the president, that leaves Salinas free to intervene and recognize the PAN `triumph,' " says Victor Orozco, editor of Cuadernos del Norte, a Chihuahua-based magazine.

"Salinas wants a democratic election, to show a political opening consistent with his economic opening," says Samuel Schmidt, director of the Center for InterAmerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas, El Paso.

GIVEN similarities in PAN and PRI policies, analysts say - particularly on economic and border issues - a PRI loss here would not be as stunning a blow, as, for example, losing in Michoacan, site of another tight governor's race. This would give that post to the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party.

Still, a PAN triumph in Chihuahua is by no means assured. Francisco "Pancho" Barrio and Jesus "Chuy" Macias are remarkably similar candidates. Both are successful young businessmen. Both served as mayor of Ciudad Juarez. Both are backed by segments of the business community. Barrio is better known, due to his near miss in the 1986 gubernatorial vote. But Mr. Macias is backed by the popular current PRI governor. "The opposition is up against the money, the political machine, and the resources of the gover nment in power. It's a lopsided contest," says Alberto Aziz Nassif, a Mexico City-based political scientist and longtime observer of Chihuahua politics. To get Macias elected, it is estimated the PRI campaigners are spending 10 times as much as Barrio.

The campaign (which both candidates suspended briefly when Barrio's 16-year-old daughter was killed in an auto accident) has been relatively placid, and this could help the PRI. Voter apathy or a low turnout helps the PRI, which is able to get its backers to the polls.

Analysts say the PAN must win in the two major cities that make up more than half the state vote - Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua. But complicating a PAN victory are strong PRI candidates for mayor in each city. Dominguez plans to vote for Barrio as governor but says she may vote for the PRI mayoral candidate. Typically, however, Mexicans vote a straight party ticket.

Recent reforms were intended to make the PRI more democratic, but often a "unity" candidate is picked by the top PRI echelon in Mexico City. Along with the reversals in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi, this has angered PRI workers who wonder if, after all their efforts, their candidate might suffer the same fate.

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