Mexican Opposition Faces Test of Strength

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

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.

"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.

"The people of Michoacan don't want to return to the discord of '88 and '89. They want jobs and investment," says PRI candidate Eduardo Villasenor Pena. The PRI campaign hammers away at the peace issue, insinuating that a vote for the PRD is a vote for instability. "Our society wants peace and development ... only with unity can you develop a strong society," he tells the crowd in Ciudad Hidalgo.

The PRD candidate, Cristobal Arias Solis, bristles at the suggestion that his is the party of violence.

"We categorically reject it. The origin of the problem is the government - not us." He claims the PRI, with governmental support, is "corrupting the electoral process" and trying to "politically lynch the PRD, they want to erase us."

Mr. Arias points to the findings of two opposition-supported pro-democracy groups, which last week reported that up to 30 percent of the electoral roll contained errors, that the PRI was getting five times as much media coverage as the opposition, and that government funds and personnel were being used in the PRI campaign.

The PRI ran newspaper ads rebutting the claims point by point, saying the observer groups are trying to "disqualify the election process by means of exaggeration and outright lies."

But on Wednesday, Cardenas told reporters that the PRD had filed charges of electoral fraud with the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Losers will protest

Both sides in this close race say they are prepared to "defend the vote" which means protests and possibly violence if they lose. PRD officials claim, given their proven level of support, there is no way the PRI can win without fraud. Meanwhile, PRI officials say that the PRD is not facing up to the coattail popularity of Salinas and is just laying the groundwork for protests when it loses.

The law does not require campaign spending audits or public reports. But there is no question the PRI has a bigger bankroll than the PRD. While the PRD entourage criss-crosses the state in two Chevy Suburbans, Mr. Villasenor's vehicle of choice is a helicopter or private plane. Arias, a well-known Michoacan politician and close associate of Cardenas, says he will spend about $750,000 on the campaign.

Villasenor, a wealthy businessman with little political experience, admits to giving cash gifts for public works along the campaign trail. But he rejects the widely publicized PRD claim that he and the PRI are spending as much as President Bush is on his reelection bid.

US presidential candidates receive $55 million dollars in federal funds if they do not accept private donations. Villasenor claims he will spend about $2 million on the campaign - all from his own pocket or private donations. The planes belong to companies he owns and the helicopter is a "loan," he says, from Sacsa, a Mexico City-based aviation firm. At normal rates, the helicopter would cost at least $20,000 a week to rent. Ruling party mobilizes

Political scientist Nava predicts the PRI will win, but just barely. He says apart from the "irregularities" in the electoral roll, the PRI is more unified and better organized. "PRI has identified its support on not just a neighborhood basis, but street by street." Indeed, PRI officials say they have 72,000 supporters in Michoacan organized to deliver 10 to 15 people each to the voting booths. And in response to the 600 to 800 nongovernmental observers expected, the PRI says it will have 900 lawyers on hand to watch over the process.

The PRI is unquestionably organized. In Ciudad Hidalgo, after his speech, Villasenor leads the crowd on a march to a large concrete amphitheater in a poorer section of town. Plastic plates and cups are handed out.

And there among the PRI supporters are the farmers from Irimbo, Lopez and Hernandez, getting free Pepsis and pork-filled tortillas for their efforts.

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