It's election time in Chihuahua. And judging by the parade of bumper stickers around this gritty, upstart industrial city flush with the Texas border, the gubernatorial race is a dead heat between Mexico's opposition National Action Party (PAN) and the country's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
That may sound insignificant. But what makes Chihuahua's elections worth a second look is what they say about Mexico's deepening democratization.
After congressional elections last July that were hailed as the fairest and most competitive in modern Mexican history - and where the PRI lost its congressional majority for the first time ever - this year's state and local elections offer further evidence of transition in what was once called "the perfect dictatorship."
Chihuahua stands out because after six years under its first PAN governor, this jewel of the opposition could return to the PRI. If polls showing the PRI on top are borne out, it would be the first time an opposition-governed state returned to the wounded ruling party.
At a time when many political analysts have projected the final collapse of the PRI, the party that has ruled Mexico for seven decades is showing it can reform itself in ways that even opposition-leaning voters approve.
In Chihuahua and in four other states, PRI candidates that traditionally were hand-picked by party powers behind closed doors were selected for the first time in open primaries.
More than 230,000 voters of all political stripes participated in the PRI state primary in March and picked Patricio Martinez, a businessman and former mayor of Chihuahua City, to be the PRI's candidate for governor. He faces the PAN's Ramn Galindo and several other minor candidates in the July 5 election.
If the PRI does wrest Chihuahua from the PAN, it will be because a popularly selected candidate was able to take advantage of voter disappointment in the incumbent's performance. And it should boost the reformist faction within the PRI that continues to battle party "dinosaurs."
"What we're seeing in Chihuahua is an electorate that is losing in blind partisan voters and gaining in ... voters who are reflecting more and evaluating the current government's action and the candidates," says Hector Padilla Delgado, a political scientist at the Ciudad Juarez Autonomous University. "We're witnessing a number of trends here that could serve as examples for the rest of the country," he adds.
Already Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo is throwing his weight behind the idea of an open primary to select the PRI's candidate for the 2000 presidential race. That would be a historic departure from the traditional dedazo, "fingering," when the president handpicked his successor.
PRI officials credit the primary system with reversing the party's sagging fortunes in a number of states - and with giving the party brighter prospects for 2000.
"Chihuahua is demonstrating to all of Mexico [the PRI's] ability to respond to change, to transform itself and face increased competition with confidence," says Diogenes Bustamante Vela, a member of the PRI state committee for Chihuahua.
All eyes will be on Chihuahua July 5, Mr. Bustamante says, "and if we're victorious, that will boost those who want to adopt a similar system to select our next presidential candidate," he adds.
But such an open presidential primary runs the risk of baring the PRI's legendary internal schisms for all of Mexico to see, analysts say.
Especially encouraging for the PRI is that, in the first statewide judgment of the PAN's performance, the opposition party is not getting high marks.
Surveys show voter approval falling from 55 to 45 percent between April and May.
Chihuahua's economy is one of Mexico's bright spots, but voters blame the state government for a galloping crime rate. The state has become a focus of drug-related violence, while Juarez continues to be rocked by more than 115 murders of young women in recent years - most of which have gone unsolved.
PAN officials insist their party will keep Chihuahua in the end. But they admit that voters "desperate for change" are frustrated with the slow pace of transition - and that some were dazzled by the PRI's primary system.
"We've taken this state through a process of modernization that's incomplete, but unfortunately not everyone remembers the accomplishments," says Jose Marquez Puentes, president of the PAN's municipal committee in Juarez. He cites the state's strong economy and better infrastructure as PAN accomplishments, while he says voters are punishing the party for drug-related violence, "which is largely a federal issue."
As for the PRI's new image as an open, democratic party, Mr. Marquez insists it's a lot of show - but a show the public went for nevertheless.
The PRI's gubernatorial primary "wasn't as competitive as it looked. Patricio [Martinez] was always the party's official candidate," he says, echoing the view of some independent analysts. "But the process got them a lot of positive exposure, and they're still benefiting from it."