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Mexican opposition tests ruling party. Ire over summer's alleged election fraud hasn't diminished

For the first time in decades, the iron grip of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party appears to be faltering in one of the nation's most highly industrialized and economically crucial regions. Contrary to often repeated government predictions, the tumult caused by alleged vote rigging in last summer's elections in Chihuahua and Durango States and the October governor race in Sinaloa refuses to die down.

Both the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and leftist groups, like the communist-led Unified Socialist Party, say that the government in Mexico City resorted to questionable tactics to wrest victories at the polls for candidates of the so-called ``official'' party.

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In Chihuahua, Mexico's largest state, two cities - Ju'arez City and Parral - illustrate the challenge that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) must face. In Ju'arez, Mexico's fourth largest city, the mood is tense and sullen.

On Nov. 20, city police had tear gas and clubs ready when PAN members prepared to march in the annual Revolution Day Parade. The two hours of street violence that shook downtown Ju'arez that day left eight policemen and scores of protestors injured. A dozen local PAN leaders were hauled to jail. Party militants retaliated by occupying an international bridge between Ju'arez and El Paso, Texas for the fourth time since July. After holding the 12 leaders incommunicado for 30 hours, authorities let them go, and the bridge was reopened to traffic.

In Parral, 300 miles south of Ju'arez, PAN sympathizers have refused to relinquish city hall to a PRI mayor that was the beneficiary of what they claim were fraudulent state elections in July.

Leading the Chihuahua opposition to PRI are former Ju'arez mayor, Francisco Barrio, and former Chihuahua City mayor, Luis H. Alvarez. Both advocate nonviolent civil disobedience as preached by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Both are widely seen as possible PAN presidential candidates in 1988.

Prof. Oscar Mart'inez of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso describes Mexico's rulers as ``very nervous'' at present.

PRI is suffering from ``deep divisions,'' and ``some people are threatening to start a new party,'' Professor Mart'inez says.

After recent election controversies, Mart'inez adds, PRI leaders close to President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado ``thought dissatisfaction would go away, but that's not going to happen.''

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``At first we thought there might be new elections [in Chihuahua] by October but now we know we may have to keep up the pressure for years,'' Walter Hulens, chair of Amnesty International in El Paso said recently. He reports that concerned Mexican and US members of his group recently helped found the American Coalition for Democracy. The coalition plan to protest further bail-outs of the debt-ridden Mexican government until demonstrably fair elections are held and alleged human rights violations cease.

Mart'inez says that the reason Governor Baeza and the PRI are in trouble is that they ``misjudged'' the extent of popular resentment against the ruling party. Even recent highway blockades by farmers upset about support prices for their crops, he notes, ``are linked to the overall [opposition] movement.'' The day before the violence erupted in Ju'arez, police and military units forcibly dislodged farmers from blockades they had manned for 80 hours at seven different points around Chihuahua.

But the recent unrest does not alter PRI's record of having run Mexico since 1929 without conceding defeat in a single election for senator, governor, or president, and knowledgeable observers never count this out of any situation.

The latest show of force was widely seen on both sides of the US-Mexico border as a reminder that in Mexico political power is not shared without a struggle.

PAN spokesman Elihier Flores Prieto says he thinks PRI's current hard line is more likely to cost the ruling party support than to restore its status as a permanent majority.

In addition to Ju'arez, Mr. Flores Prieto names Monterrey, Mazatl'an, Culiac'an, and Mexicali as cities where significant protest actions took place on Nov. 20.

``We are proving not just to [Governor] Baeza but also to [President] Miguel de la Madrid that resorting to election fraud in Chihuahua was a mistake,'' spokesman Flores Prieto says. Noting the controversy surrounding recent vote counts elsewhere in Mexico, he adds ``there are lots of opportunities to make what is happening in Chihuahua begin to happen in other states.''

This leads Flores Prieto to ponder PAN's prospects in the 1988 presidential race. ``A lot of people think the only way to topple the government is by force,'' he says, ``but, as a political party, we have to give [elections] one more try. After that, it will be up to the people to decide.''

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