MICHOACN is a poor, rural state that less than a decade ago gave wings to Mexico's left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Now in an upcoming governor's race, Michoacan may also be the state that clips those wings and sends the country's third-strongest political force crashing to the ground.
Defeat for the PRD in Michoacan would likely set Mexico on a road to the kind of two-party system that has developed in the United States and in many other established democracies.
Yet the party's defeat in statewide elections Nov. 12 would also throw Mexico's left into further disarray, leaving one segment of Mexico with the feeling it has no national political alternative. That could lead to the kind of social unrest that has sprouted this year from the ranks of new social or civil organizations that claim no ties to any established political party.
''There are risks ahead for Michoacan and Mexico if the PRD loses here,'' says Juan Manuel Belmonte, news director for the daily newspaper Voz de Michoacan in Morelia, the state capital. ''With a close defeat, the chances for postelectoral conflict and violence would grow, and that ... has already hurt our image and [economic] development,'' he says.
Local elections set for Nov. 12 in a half-dozen Mexican states will continue what has become a kind of ongoing popularity poll on the governing Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). Having registered significant losses in dozens of local and state elections, the PRI already counts 1995 as its worst electoral showing in its 66-year rule.
The left in crisis
Yet while these may be bad times for the PRI, they look even worse for a left that, because of internal spats and the lack of an alternative program, has been unable to take advantage of the PRI's troubles and Mexico's economic crisis.
The PRD ranks third in Mexico's multiparty political system after the PRI and the rising center-left National Action Party (PAN), which has scored important electoral gains this year. But after faring surprisingly poorly last month in local elections in the symbolically important southern state of Chiapas, the PRD faces in Michoacan its last hope for a major electoral win this year.
At least one respected poll has consistently shown the PRD coming in third in Michoacan's election. This week, the Center for Opinion Studies at the University of Guadalajara released its third poll on the race, and like the first two, it shows the PRD coming in third. Just as troubling for the party, the poll reveals that even in its birthplace, it has the highest negative ratings of the three major parties.
Even many of the PRD's natural constituents in poor, rural Michoacan willingly list the reasons the party is having trouble here. Waiting on a recent chilly evening for former PRD senator and gubernatorial candidate Cristobal Arias Solis to stop by, residents of Charo, a small town outside Morelia, says the PRD had been hurt by its own divisions, smudged reputation, and an ideology out of step with Mexico.
''We are for the PRD, but I worry that some leaders in the party are for an economy that doesn't fit with where the rest of the world is going,'' says a woman who identified herself only as Dolores. The PRD opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement, is a strong critic of market-oriented economic reforms that are continuing under President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, and favors a stronger role for the state in the economy.
A reputation for violence
Another supporter, local farmer Uvaldo Lopez, recognized that the PRD has been hurt by a reputation for violence that he says is not deserved. ''But I think [the PRD has] overcome those problems, and if the voting is fair, Cristobal can come out on top.''
The PRD candidate, a lanky man who looks more like corporate Mexico City than rural Mexico, recognized in an interview the important repercussions this race will have for his party and Mexico. ''This will determine whether our party is a viable political option at more than just the municipal level,'' Mr. Arias says. ''And our triumph here will break [Mexico's] two-party tendency and solidify a multiparty system that is necessary for a more representative democracy.''
But if the PRD does poorly in Michoacan, it will be largely the party's own doing. In 1990 the PRD governed a majority of the state's municipalities - including Charo - but has lost ground to the PRI since then.
PAN gubernatorial candidate Felipe Calderon Hinojosa says an important element in what he predicts will be the PRD's demise here is the undistinguished job it did when it governed more than 60 of 113 localities.
Local historian Angel Gutierrez agrees. ''The people don't see any difference in the places the PRD has governed,'' says the University of Michoacan professor. ''So when the PRD talks about the PRI's economic failures, it is not seen as the most adequate [party] to respond to that.''
Yet beyond Michoacan's political intrigue, Mr. Gutierrez says he sees something else important going on in a state long considered a symbol of ''bronco'' Mexico - the country's rural, poor, isolated, harsh, and change-resistant interior. After nearly a decade of election conflicts and political instability, Michoacan has a new election code and local and state elections that can give the state a new period of stability.
''We are already feeling a new attitude in a more tranquil and democratic election campaign,'' Gutierrez says.
And if the elections are perceived as fair, ''then we can say we set the bases for a truly participatory democracy,'' he adds.
And no matter who wins or loses, ''that will be important news for Michoacan and Mexico,'' he says.