BETTER known as the home of Mexico's petroleum giant, the state of Tabasco is being closely watched for clues to the country's political future as it holds the first state elections since the August presidential campaign this Sunday.
With Mexican President-elect Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon set to take office 11 days after the Nov. 20 elections here, analysts say the Tabasco elections will help establish the political climate in the Zedillo government's first few months.
``Tabasco is going to initiate the Zedillo presidency,'' says Samuel Canton Zetina, columnist with a Villahermosa daily. ``Zedillo needs these first state elections [held] since his victory to be clean and democratic, especially since they fall like an introduction to his term.''
Like most of Mexico, the southeastern state of Tabasco offers a picture of a longtime domain of a monolithic state party now learning to live with a political opposition and more diverse political expression.
As recently as six years ago, the state knew little more than the official Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but today Villahermosa's streets are festooned with banners of a half-dozen parties. Tabasco is one of the few states where the left-wing opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) is a strong second power.
That has made for a lot of political tension and concern that violence could break out if Sunday's results are tainted with accusations of fraud.
A real contest
But the presence of a viable opposition has also made the PRI campaign hungry for a victory for the first time, observers here say. ``A new political climate has teamed up with a very difficult economic situation in the state to give the opposition a base it never had before, and that is requiring the PRI to restructure itself and fight for these elections,'' says Elias Balcasar Antonio, a history professor at the university of Tabasco here.
The state's governorship is expected to remain in PRI hands, largely because the party designated Roberto Madrazo Pintado, the charismatic scion of a well-known local political family, to carry its banner against a popular PRD candidate.
Municipal races, Mr. Canton says, where the PRD and the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) are expected to make unprecedented inroads, should be more telling. If the opposition does well, especially after the results of last Sunday's local elections in neighboring Veracruz State, Zedillo will take office in a climate of progress for multiparty democracy.
In the Veracruz elections, the PAN won majorities in several of the state's largest cities, and the PRD carried the opposition to a new level of influence.
Another factor in the progress toward democracy was the PRI party convention in the state of Jalisco, where state delegates - not the party's national political bosses - selected the party's gubernatorial candidate for the first time in PRI history.
But this rosy picture could still be spoiled by a number of setbacks, including any substantial perception of electoral dirty tricks in the Tabasco voting or postelectoral violence.
Accusations of fraud
The opposition parties accuse Governor Madrazo of surpassing campaign spending limits and benefiting from lopsided campaign coverage by a local media that is financially dependent on the state. This week those criticisms were backed up by Civic Alliance, a prominent national electoral watchdog organization.
The greater risk may be for violence, Canton says, especially given a tense climate already reigning in the state. The poor economy and the proximity of an armed rebellion in the neighboring state of Chiapas have resulted in a rise in angry political activism and heightened levels of violence, he says.
For example, Villahermosa's central government square has been occupied for three months by hundreds of fishermen and their families who are demanding reparations of Pemex, Mexico's state-owned petroleum company, which they claim has polluted their lagoons until there are no fish left. Tempers have flared as the fishermen have demanded money of any passersby and as locals have accused the ``unwelcome squatters'' of being agitators for the PRD.
The PRD could suffer if voters associate the party with the state's uneasy climate, Canton says, and a PRD defeat in Tabasco could shake up Mexico's left, giving new life to the more moderate wing of the PRD.