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State race tests Mexico's political progress. Determined opposition fights to make its mark in ruling party stronghold

Until today's controversial election, political races in tiny tropical Tabasco State were about as thrilling as waiting for coconuts to fall from the palm trees. For 60 years, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has had no opposition here. The current governor strolled into office six years ago with more than 90 percent of the vote. Even in the July 6 national elections, when the PRI's one-party rule suffered its worst setback, 74 percent of the voters in this sedate, oil-rich state gave their dutiful support to the ruling party.

But that drowsy political panorama was shaken soon after the elections. Late in July, Andr'es Manuel L'opez Obrador, a former state president of the PRI, broke with the party to run as the gubernatorial candidate of the National Democratic Front (FDN), a center-left coalition of four small parties propelled by presidential candidate Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas.

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Suddenly, the state-wide race - the first since July's presidential vote - was viewed as a barometer of the nation's political progress. For pundits all over Mexico, today's election will show how much a united opposition can achieve in a traditional PRI stronghold. And it will also be the first test of the ``new, modern PRI'' promised by President-elect Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who takes office Dec. 1.

So far, the results are none too promising for the development of a clean, pluralistic democracy in Mexico. The opposition is getting squelched by its own errors and the PRI's best maneuvering, and both sides are slinging enough mud to make the Bush-Dukakis contest look gentlemanly.

Shaken by July's vote, the PRI is pulling out all the stops to win the election. ``The July 6 election was a lesson for us,'' says Roberto Madrazo Pintado, the new state president of the PRI and a close Salinas adviser. ``The party saw that it needed to revamp its strategy to avoid losing any more ground.''

The party's state organization has been streamlined and reorganized. And its candidate, Salvador Neme Castillo, has made more than 3,000 campaign stops in a state of just 684,000 voters.

PRI leaders, now convinced that the opposition lacks the organization to be a real threat, are brimming with confidence.

``You'll probably think I'm being triumphal,'' says the affable, back-slapping Mr. Neme, ``but the truth is that the opposition has no presence in Tabasco.''

Or so it seems. If a visitor here did nothing but scour the newspapers, watch television, and read the posters plastered on nearly every city wall, he would indeed conclude that Neme is the only candidate in this race.

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But despite the lack of publicity, the progressive Mr. L'opez Obrador enjoys strong support among the state's peasant and Indian populations, according to an informal survey of several rural communities.

The Indians here, who make up some 6 percent of the state's population, admire L'opez Obrador, a former representative of the government's Indian agency, for bringing roads and development projects to their remote villages.

But the FDN hopes to get a larger boost from the peasant sector, which plays a key role in a state where more than half the land is dedicated to agriculture. Earlier this fall, the leader of the PRI's influential state peasant union - fed up with corruption and an unwillingness to reform - resigned and switched to the FDN coalition. The popular congressman, Darvin Gonz'alez, has since help organized the L'opez Obrador campaign.

In Tabasco, where 40 percent of Mexico's oil is produced, the central complaint seems to be the misuse of government funds rather than the lack of them.

L'opez Obrador claims that corruption and distortions have characterized the PRI campaign. Sitting under a lone light bulb in his spartan campaign office, the boyish candidate contends that the PRI ``has failed to learn the lessons of July 6. They have no will to change.''

While L'opez Obrador campaigned in a single beat-up car, his opponent traveled in a caravan of plush, air-conditioned buses, often drawing supporters with free machetes, school supplies, paid holidays, and free TV ads. Says Neme: ``I am lucky to have so many friends.''

In the face of the PRI machinery, the FDN campaign has stumbled in the past few weeks. Several local candidates have returned to the PRI, saying they were frustrated with the FDN's lack of organization and several recent rock-throwing incidents. (L'opez Obrador says this is a result of PRI intimidation and payoffs of up to $240,000.)

The FDN's highest hurdle has been getting enough people registered to watch the state's 1,062 voting booths. Only recently, the state electoral commission tightened its rules, requiring notarized proof of residence for all vote watchers. PRI officials say the change was necessary because the weak opposition sought to bring in supporters from outside the state. But the FDN says it is just one of many obstacles meant to slow down their surprising progress.

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