FOR only the second time in its 63-year dynasty, Mexico's ruling party has lost a state election.
But this hairline crack in the armor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) may hand President Carlos Salinas de Gortari a means to quiet critics of Mexican democracy. And with the PRI win in Michoacan also on Sunday, President Salinas may have eliminated a presidential challenge from the left.
"Chihuahua reinforces the PRI claim that there's a political opening," says John Bailey, Mexico specialist at Georgetown University. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) now has elected governors in Baja California and Chihuahua plus an interim governor appointed in Guanajuato.
"The PRI can now show up in Washington with the PAN on its side. All the PRI needs is to show minimal movement in the right direction and it can defend itself against the image of Mexico as authoritarian and corrupt," Professor Bailey says.
Most analysts agree that Chihuahua shows Salinas's willingness, under some circumstances, to allow the opposition to have a go at the PRI's historically impregnable power structure.
"It's a pragmatic, gradual liberalization," Bailey says.
Frederico Estevez, a political scientist at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, says the "change is real. It's only the second state. But they start adding up after a while." Given the PRI's inability to regroup and win local elections in Baja California after the 1989 PAN win there, Professor Estevez predicts the PRI's grip will slip in Chihuahua as well.
Bailey, however, argues that while the PRI may be permitting a little electoral freedom, the government's centralized fiscal control over the states is now tighter than ever. His studies show 85 percent to 87 percent of state funds are provided by the federal government.
"Salinas can allow a pragmatic opening in the electoral arena because he has them by the purse strings. They're beyond poor, they're desperate."
A messy PRI victory in Michoacan may solve Salinas' second problem, a 1994 presidential challenge from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, head of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Mr. Cardenas nearly took the presidency away from Salinas in 1988; many analysts say Salinas won through fraud.
Despite Cardenas's campaign efforts in Michoacan, his home state, official results show PRD gubernatorial candidate Cristobal Arias losing by a 3-to-2 margin.
"If the economy doesn't crack or barring some other disaster, Cardenas doesn't have a hope in 1994," Estevez says.
But PRD officials insist that the Michoacan elections were fraudulent and their vote count shows the PRD won by a small but decisive margin. "You will see civil resistance if they don't respect PRD as the true winner," Mr. Arias says in an interview.
Independent civic observers agree that a laundry list of "irregularities" were evident. Those included people with voting credentials but not on electoral rolls, too many or too few ballots at polling stations, 30 stations that did not use indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, 14 accredited party observers denied access to voting stations.
"The generalized minor incidents add up and the overall effect is a major alteration. It's a very well designed strategy on the part of the PRI," says PRD spokesman Ricardo Pascoe.
But Mexican observers refused to say if there were sufficient errors to change the tally. Robert Pastor, leader of a observer group from the Carter Center in Atlanta, said at a press conference that the opposition "tended to exaggerate the irregularities."
PRD officials hope they can generate enough disturbances in Michoacan to prevent the PRI candidate from taking office in September. Similar protests succeeded last year in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi. But Salinas did not have an opportunity then, as he does now, to quash the presidential prospects of Cardenas. Few analysts expect Salinas to back down this time. Perhaps Cardenas, too, senses this. He said in an interview: "Whatever the results are in Michoacan, this is just one more battle in the fight
for democracy in the country."