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Winning Is Not All in Mexico

Zedillo under pressure to improve democracy by ensuring elections are fair

THE Ramirez Rabajo electronics store is showing a fast-action movie on wide-screen TVs at one end of a small plaza in this western Mexico city. At the other end, the nation's ruling political party sponsors a show to drum up support in this month's state and local elections.

In the popularity contest that develops between the movie and the rally of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the movie wins hands down.

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''Between the fantasy they're offering here and the lies the PRI would tell us over there, I'll take the fantasy,'' says Miguel Marentes Moreno, a local tire-plant laborer with eyes fixed on the flashing screens.

''The PRI is going to lose, but they will do anything to say they won,'' he adds. ''The same problems they're having in Tabasco and Chiapas [states] over dishonest elections will be repeated here.''

Mr. Marentes's words spell trouble for Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, whose government is already weakened by post-electoral conflicts in other states.

With discontentment over the elections threatening to derail a multiparty pact signed last month, which committed the government and major parties to definitive democratic reform, Mr. Zedillo desperately needs the Feb. 12 elections here in Jalisco State to go without a hitch.

The Jalisco elections are doubly important because they will set the tone for a year of local elections in some of Mexico's most important states. As Jalisco, Chihuahua, Baja California, Yucatan, Guanajuato, and nine other states vote between now and November, they will largely determine the country's political climate as it battles an economic crisis touched off by December's peso devaluation.

Top priority: free elections

Mexico's political stability will be as important as the new financial aid package announced by President Clinton last week in deciding whether the economic crisis will be short term, analysts agree. Thus, they say, Zedillo is more interested in fair elections than in victory for his own party. But are the president and his government in a position to guarantee fairness?

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''That is the big question of this election,'' says Tarcisio Rodriguez Martinez, Jalisco State president of the National Action Party (PAN), the PRI's principal rival in the Jalisco races for governor, mayor of Guadalajara, and other local races. ''We believe Zedillo wants a clean election, but what we don't know is what power he has to control the state PRI.''

The steady string of state elections will continue to test the beleaguered Zedillo's authority, even as he attempts to keep his promise to give Mexico a true federalism with a genuine degree of state autonomy.

Recent experience in the state of Tabasco, still torn by partisan protests following November elections, suggests that Zedillo's grip on state party structures is weak and getting weaker. Tabasco was the scene of violent marches last month after rumors spread that Zedillo, convinced the PRI win was fraudulent, had agreed to new elections. Local PRI party members battled riot police in defense of their newly elected governor.

Now Zedillo's government supports the idea of a referendum to decide if new elections should be held in Tabasco. But the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, insisting it was cheated out of victory in the first place called for stepped-up ''civil disobedience'' at a massive rally Jan. 29.

In Jalisco, all parties say they want to avoid such post-election turmoil -- even as the stage for conflict looks as though it is being set.

With one poll showing the opposition PAN in the lead, the campaign is heating up. Although state PRI leaders say they want clean elections and insist they will win fairly, evidence is surfacing of the kind of campaigning that has made the PRI an unrivaled power in Jalisco for the 65 years the party has ruled Mexico.

Recently, a local newspaper reported that state bureaucrats were pressuring employees to sign on as PRI supporters. And the PRI-run state government has reportedly been handing out rural development funds, even though national election officials had asked that such distributions be suspended.

Still, Jalisco voters were shaken by events in 1994 and appear ready to elect a governor from the opposition.

''This is a very traditional state, but we're seeing a strong desire for change for the first time in 70 years,'' says Cesar Morones, director of the University of Guadalajara's Center for Opinion Studies.

Mr. Morones, whose CEO polling group is known for accurately predicting last year's presidential election outcome, says his Jalisco polls show the peso devaluation as only the latest event dragging down the PRI. The September assassination of PRI leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, following the March killing of popular PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, caused a particularly steep dip in PRI support.

Mood against PRI

''Our surveys show the voters want more than anything else that the next government combat corruption, including public insecurity and drug trafficking,'' Morones says. ''Given the public's current mood, these are not easy issues for the PRI.''

The pollster adds that two Guadalajara events -- a gas pipeline explosion in 1992 that killed more than 200 people, and the assassination of the city's cardinal in 1993 -- are now increasingly cited as reasons for voting against the PRI.

But the PRI brings more experience to office than any opposition candidate could. ''The next few years will be crucial for Jalisco, we'll need a government that knows how to get things done,'' says Guadalajara businessman Francisco Romano, who says he'll vote for the PRI. ''We can't afford to become a laboratory for the PAN.''

With Zedillo continuing to earn extremely low marks in Jalisco for his handling of the economy, voters here may prefer an inexperienced party over a weakened president. Zedillo's challenge will be to make sure that elections are fair, so their preference is respected.


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