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Mexico ruling party tries comeback in a defiant state. New government tries to revive support in key opponent's home state

For a few fleeting hours last week, rural laborer Manuel Torres Berm'udez regained hope in Mexico's government. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had kicked off his six-year term with a surprising concession: He removed the embattled hard-line governor of Michoac'an State after angry followers of populist presidential candidate, Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas, had taken over 58 of 113 town halls in protest.

The new governor, Genevevo Figueroa, promised that Michoac'an's political struggle would be resolved through dialogue rather than the confrontational style of his predecessor.

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For the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as well as the leftist coalition, this rugged western state would be a litmus test for the Salinas administration. (Michoac'an voters gave a record-breaking 63 percent of its votes to Mr. C'ardenas last July.)

But Mr. Torres's hope for government openness was battered last Thursday.

While Mr. Figueroa and fellow PRI leaders plotted strategies for their recovery, Torres and 40 other protesters in the town of Huetamo were getting roughed up by rifle-toting government agents.

``Figueroa gave promises of political dialogue and settlement,'' says Torres, adding that he was peacefully calling for the mayor's resignation. ``But what happened yesterday? There was no dialogue, no forewarning. Only rifle butts.... [Such an incident] only makes us want to fight harder.''

The PRI recognizes the stakes of such a fight - and is focusing much of its energy on revitalizing its political support in Michoac'an.

Last July, Mr. Salinas won only 24 percent of the vote in Michoac'an and 50.7 percent in all of Mexico. The left-leaning C'ardenas coalition won 12 of Michoac'an's 13 federal deputy seats and both Senate seats. This marked the first time in 59 years that the ruling party had lost a Senate race.

Now the PRI faces further challenges.

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Even after the Army dispersed opposition members who had taken over the town halls two weeks ago, continuing protests have immobilized 16 town governments. The leftist coalition - the National Democratic Front (FDN) - is demanding that the PRI negotiate the fate of the local mayors.

Even more disturbing for the PRI are the state congressional elections scheduled for next July. If the opposition wins a clear majority, it will have the power to remove the governor without Salinas's help. The PRI has never lost a governorship.

Seeking to avoid such an unprecedented loss, PRI president Luis Donaldo Colosio rushed to Michoac'an last week for a three-day tour, just days after being appointed by Salinas.

``Our party is already on the road to modernization,'' Mr. Colosio told PRI militants, echoing the slogans of the Salinas campaign. ``It is time to recognize the competition, not ignore it.''

But while he talked of democracy, renovation, and respect for the opposition, Colosio's main mission was clear: to shore up the PRI's support in time to win the elections next year and rescue the party's image nationwide. As he told supporters in Morelia: ``Our fight begins here.''

The PRI has fought back from adversity before.

In 1985 and 1986, the right-wing National Action Party was on the verge of taking power in the states of Chihuahua, Jalisco, and Sonora. But the PRI, using a mixture of electoral tricks and grass-roots political mobilization, has regained a comfortable majority in those states, recent electoral statistics point out.

Leftist opposition leaders say such a PRI comeback is not possible in a state with a defiant revolutionary tradition like Michoac'an.

Centuries ago, the local Tarascan Indians fought back successfully against the domineering Aztecs. That same spirit made Michoac'an the forefront of the 19th-century independence struggle and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

But the state's most vivid revolutionary was President Lazaro C'ardenas, the father of current opposition leader Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas. In the 1930s, Lazaro Cardenas expropriated land and oil from private owners. Like many poor farmers here, Manuel Torres still speaks fondly of ``Tata'' C'ardenas, the man who gave land to his family.

``Michoac'an is always going to be the example for Mexico,'' says Huber Gonz'alez Jarillo, a federal deputy for the FDN. ``Today, we're showing that it is possible to take power away from the PRI. People are aware of the PRI's attempt to recuperate lost ground, but the party is dead here. Nobody is going to return to the PRI.''

The exodus from the PRI here began when Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas left the PRI to form a populist coalition last year. Since then, Michoac'an has been a cauldron of discontent.

But the PRI's problems here are more than just an adulation for the C'ardenas family. It is also rooted in repression and numbing rural poverty, which has only been sharpened by six years of austerity.

Political experts here say that unless Salinas can foster rural development and a more open democracy, the PRI will continue to lose ground in Michoac'an - and throughout Mexico.

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