Mexico’s PRI needs win in gulf state poll

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico, Reuters

Mexico’s struggling former ruling party is pinning its hopes on a win in weekend gubernatorial elections in the Gulf state of Tabasco, a traditional stronghold, to halt a run of election defeats.

But the race on Sunday looks close. The two front-runners are Manuel Andrade, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until July 2000, and Raul Ojeda, of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

And election observers fear violence as passions run high in both camps.

Opinion polls show 35-year-old Andrade, the protege of powerful former Gov. Roberto Madrazo, with a lead of between three and seven percentage points over Ojeda, a 49-year-old hotelier.

Both men stood as candidates when the election was first held last October. Andrade was officially given a narrow victory but the election was annulled on grounds of fraud in an unprecedented ruling by the nation’s supreme electoral court.

The Tabasco election is just one of many governor’s races. But — due to PRI veteran Madrazo’s ambition to hold his party’s top post — it could become a watershed vote signaling the future of the PRI and which the direction the once-mighty party will take .

“A clear-cut Andrade triumph would thrust Madrazo back into the race for PRI president,” said Mexico expert George Grayson, who is a professor at William & Mary College, Virginia. “A messy outcome on August 5 would sound the death knell for Madrazo’s political career.”

The party’s reformers see Madrazo as representing a return to the nepotism and corruption that characterized the PRI, which has floundered since losing the presidency to Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party in last year’s elections.

Since that historic defeat, the party that once controlled much of Mexican life, including the army, media, business and unions, has seen its power base steadily erode, losing its bastions of Chiapas and Yucatan in gubernatorial elections.

Ojeda, who defected from the PRI last year, alleges his old party will use foul play to try and rig the election in Tabasco. PRI officials in one Tabasco municipality handed out 16,000 chickens in a bid to assure residents’ votes, he said.

“They want to prevent an opposition victory at all costs and they are capable of anything,” he said.

Friar Francisco Goitia, head of the Tabasco Human Rights Committee, said that the PRI would put up the fight of its life to hold on to control of the state.

“There is a lot of tension, as there was the last time around,” Goitia told Reuters. “This is a fight to the death for the PRI. This time they are prepared to fight to the end.”

Career politician Andrade has accused his rival of using a smear campaign to try to discredit him.

In Tabasco’s capital, Villahermosa, many remained undecided as to how they will vote, just two days ahead of the election.

Both Andrade and Ojeda have pledged to fight unemployment and poverty, help industry and business and promote development in the sweltering, jungle state that remains dirt-poor despite being home to Mexico’s oil reserves.

“None of the proposals interest me. It’s as though they want to bring Disneyland here. It’s all lies,” mechanic Antonio Rodriguez, 49, who owns an electrical goods shop, said.

“We need work. We need industry. Many young people lack education and opportunities. We need incentives for investment here and to end our dependence on oil.”

Garbage collector Luis Lopez, 62, said: “We need a salary increase. Things like gas, electricity and water are expensive here. Candidates always offer a lot and then shut their fists tight when they get in.”

Some 200 election observers will be in Tabasco to monitor voting.