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Chihuahua State election: key test for Mexico's ruling party. Officials worry that loss of governor's seat could sway other states

While international bankers worry about Mexico's nearly $100 billion foreign debt, Mexicans' attention is riveted on politics -- a state election that could shake their system of government to its foundation. Mexico City officials worry that, for the first time since the 1929 founding of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, another party could win governorship of a state. On Sunday, Chihuahua State, Mexico's largest, holds elections for governor, 14 state legislators, and 67 municipality mayors.

If Chihuahua falls into opposition hands, a senior government bureaucrat says, it will be politically ``disastrous.'' The ruling party fears that other states would follow suit.

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Chihuahua, which produces some 10 percent of Mexico's gross national product, is among the world's fastest growing industrial areas, according to the Pan-American Health Association. Contributing to this growth are United States manufacturing plants which use Mexican labor to produce goods, primarily for export. These plants, known as maquiladoras, generate badly needed jobs and revenues. With crude oil prices falling and tourism in the doldrums, maquiladoras are a vital source of hard currency. Mexican government estimates show these plants are second only to oil in bringing in foreign exchange.

In Chihuahua itself, there is widespread concern. Opposition politicians on the left and right, as well as Roman Catholic Church leaders, worry that the balloting could be marred by violence, an atmosphere of mistrust, and fraud.

Few people doubt that President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado himself picked the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) slate for Chihuahua. Old-line PRI peasant and labor leaders criticized the President's choice of candidates. Since Chihuahua voters have snubbed PRI candidates twice in the past three years, Mr. de la Madrid reportedly wanted business-oriented candidates who are more in tune with the times.

Facing each other in this year's crucial gubernatorial contest are:

PRI candidate Fernando Baeza, a former federal deputy and assistant attorney general with ties to business in the state capital of Ciudad Chihuahua.

National Action Party (PAN) candidate Francisco Barrio, the charismatic former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's fourth largest city. His 1983 victory remains the most serious electoral setback yet suffered by PRI.

In Juarez, the race for mayor is equally heated and nearly as important. PRI has fielded Jaime Bermudez, an industrialist widely hailed as a prime mover in the maquiladora boom. His PAN opponent is Gustavo Elizondo, an engineer and businessman who recently stepped down as local head of the powerful Mexican Management Confederation.

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A Mexican election that features attractive, pro-business candidates from both parties might seem an unlikely cause for concern. But the trouble is, many Mexicans blame PRI for a long list of grievances -- the crushing internal and foreign debt, inflation threatening to hit triple digits, law enforcement involved in drugs, auto theft, extortion, and other forms of official corruption.

Although Chihuahuans may long to get rid of the PRI, indications are that the central government has other ideas.

In a cover story entitled Chronicle of a Foretold Fraud, the news magazine Proceso denounced likely manipulation of the election roll and PRI control of polling places. ``The machinery for the fraud is already cranked up,'' the prestigious weekly said. The state's election laws were ``especially reformed'' last year to make victory for the PRI easier than ever.

Though there is criticism of the PRI in Mexican newspapers and magazines, PAN campaign activities get limited coverage. PAN complains it can buy little or no radio or television time. It has responded with grass-roots organizing, paid newspaper ads, and ``civil disobedience.''

Also seeking to resist the PRI juggernaut is the Democratic Election Movement. An umbrella group of 94 organizations, it claims a membership of 200,000.

A former PRI insider no longer living in Mexico says PRI probably gained victory through fraud in the 1985 gubernatorial elections in the states of Sonora and Nuevo Le'on.

PRI loyalists admit past mistakes but insist the party has cleaned up its act with bright new candidates and better organization. They claim to be assured victories not only in Chihuahua but also in 12 other 1986 governors' races and condemn PAN for defining honest elections solely as those it wins.

This year, observers think PRI could come up short in gubernatorial contests in Sinaloa and Durango. PAN leaders say their credibility as an opposition party would suffer from repetitions of last year's events in Nuevo Le'on and Sonora. Both sides, it is widely agreed, have too much at stake to back down easily.

Chandler Thompson runs the Clearinghouse on Mexico in El Paso, Texas, and edits NPD Mexico Daily News Briefs.

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