Mexico's Rulers Feel a Quake In Two Elections for Governors

THE tectonic plates of Mexico's political landscape continued their progressive shift on May 28 with elections in two key states that suggest a democratic, multiparty system is gradually taking hold.

The gubernatorial elections in Guanajuato and Yucatan also revealed a reaction across party lines against the technocratic, US-educated leadership that has largely stood at Mexico's helm since former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari took power in 1988.

Left, right, or center, Mexican voters shaken by an economic crisis seem to be saying, we want leaders who work not just with theories and numbers, but for people.

Vincente Fox Quesada, a charismatic, tough-talking agribusinessman who hopes to lead the opposition National Action Party (PAN) to its first presidential victory in the year 2000, rode a landslide vote into the governorship of Guanajuato state.

At the same time, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), for 65 years the official party of Mexico, held on to the governorship of Yucatan with a PRI old-guard ''dinosaur'' who has close ties to the state's rural, uneducated poor.

Accusations of vote-buying

The darkest cloud over the elections, which have been spotlighted as indicators of Mexico's democratization and political stability, are accusations -- largely leveled against the PRI -- of vote-buying and fraud in the heavily rural Yucatan. The PAN, insisting it will not accept one fraudulent vote, is protesting the PRI's Yucatan victory.

But the five-point margin of victory for PRI candidate Victor Cervera Pacheco -- 49 percent compared with the PAN candidate's 44 percent -- and the absence of evidence of widespread irregularities suggests the PRI's victory was, if not above reproach, at least not stolen as in the manner of the party's past.

Mr. Fox, a vegetable packer from Leon, won the Guanajuato governorship with a 2 to 1 advantage over his PRI rival. He lost a 1991 run for the same post in an election that many analysts believe was stolen by the PRI.

The two states' elections ''confirm that plurality is strengthening as a mark of our political system,'' said Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon the day after the voting.

Mr. Zedillo was clearly relieved that the elections -- which had been closely followed by foreign analysts and investors for signs of instability -- took place with little obvious trouble. The mix of a PAN and a PRI victory allows the president to point to the country's political transformation as he works to convince Mexicans and foreigners that the country has turned the corner on its 5 1/2-month financial crisis.

Less comforting for Zedillo, however, is the fact that Mr. Cervera's victory in Yucatan represents the ''revenge'' of his own party's old guard against the ''new PRI'' that the president represents.

Yucatan win buoys old guard

''Zedillo thought that [Cervera] would self-destruct, but now he is faced with the realization that the old guard ... will play a larger role and be around longer than everyone thought,'' says Sergio Sarmiento, a political analyst and commentator in Mexico City. ''It may be a blow to the hopes of PRI reformers, but the message is that it is the old guard that can reach people.''

With the PRI's old guard buoyed by the Yucatan results, efforts at democratic modernization within the PRI will be colored by the fresh realization that the reformist wing no longer has the upper hand. Some analysts even see the PRI's internal battles escalating as an emboldened old guard confronts a shaken reformist wing.

''It is clear [the state party] has arrived at a culminating point in its crisis,'' says Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, a political columnist in the Mexico City daily Reforma.

In February, the PAN for the first time won the governorship of the important industrial state of Jalisco. Fox's victory further confirms the PAN's ascendancy in Mexican politics, but does not necessarily leave the center-right PAN on a bump-free ride.

The rugged Fox, who often wears a Stetson hat, is frequently at philosophical odds with his party's national leadership for its strong support of Mexico's free-market reforms. He frequently criticizes the ''neo-liberal'' economic model of Mexico's technocrats.

At the same time, however, his election leaves Fox one of the most important contenders for president in the year 2000. His distinctive political stance makes him the PAN's only potential candidate who can hope to garner support from the left and the right.

The elections results confirm a trend of mounting strength for the PAN in Mexico's urban, industrial, and north-central regions -- a trend that could serve the party well in national legislative elections in 1997. The elections also reveal a more democratic Mexico: The voters, not so much a centralized party or administration, are getting the elected officials they want.

''The country is becoming more democratic,'' says Mr. Sarmiento. ''That may or may not mean that the kind of candidates I would support are being elected, but it does mean the will of the people was not violated.''

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