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Ruling Party Dealt Loss in Mexican State Election

By Tod Robberson
The Washington Post

President Ernesto Zedillo's ruling party conceded its biggest-ever electoral defeat Monday after voters in central Jalisco state elected opposition candidates to the governorship and mayor's office in Guadalajara, the state capital and Mexico's second-largest city.

Political analysts said the results of Sunday's elections, which appeared to give the conservative opposition National Action Party an 18 percentage-point margin over Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was a clear message of dissatisfaction with handling of a seven-week-old economic crisis producing a 40 percent decline in the exchange value of the peso.

"Voters here are just like voters anywhere else. They vote with their pocketbooks," said Mexican political scientist Denise Dresser.

PRI strategists said they had hoped to get a last-minute boost at the polls from Zedillo's decision last week to send troops into southern Chiapas state to end a 13-month rebellion there by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

The PRI's rejection at the polls dealt a further blow to Zedillo's efforts to unify the country behind a series of belt-tightening measures he proposed in January as the currency crisis intensified. Mexico's leftist opposition has already vowed to fight Zedillo's measures and has been organizing tax strikes.

National Action's leaders have made clear they will no longer tolerate the 65-year tradition of virtual one-party rule by the PRI that has contributed to widespread corruption and a perception of lawlessness.

Dresser described the Jalisco vote as "a premonition of things to come" as National Action and the PRI prepare for additional confrontations in three other gubernatorial elections this spring and summer.

The PRI had never lost an election in Jalisco, but the Dec. 20 peso devaluation "was the last straw" for voters, said National Action candidate Cesar Coll, who claimed victory late Sunday in the Guadalajara mayor's race. "Mexico is showing the world it is evolving away from this party of dictatorship we have had until now."

The presidency has imposed a virtual news blackout on its crackdown in Chiapas, while continuing to deny any connection between the elections and the timing of the military sweep.

A government statement late Sunday asserted that the Zapatistas are being rounded up without gunfire or bloodshed, other than an incident Friday in which an army colonel was shot dead. Officials called it a sniper attack.

The government has sealed off news media access to the isolated jungle zone of conflict, just north of the Guatemalan border, where officials say the Zapatistas are being encircled by army troops and federal judicial police.

In a communique published by Mexican newspapers Monday, the Zapatistas alleged that the military was taking advantage of the information blackout to bomb and strafe rebel positions. The rebels alleged that children had been killed and women raped by advancing troops, who were said to be forming a "circle of death" around the Zapatistas.

The government denied the rebel claims as well as reports of fighting, but given its refusal to allow reporters into conflictive areas. When the Zapatistas launched their rebellion Jan. 1, 1994, the Mexican military initially responded with aerial strafing and rocketing that included direct hits on areas where reporters were interviewing civilians. Despite videotapes, the military continued to deny that it had strafed civilian areas.

Zedillo ordered the Mexican military into action last Thursday as he unveiled the identity of the Zapatistas' popular leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Zedillo labeled Marcos, whose real name allegedly is Rafael Sebastian Guillen, as a "delinquent" who is being sought for treason, illegal arms possession and murder.

But during an appearance at a Mexico City bullfighting ring Sunday by actor Sylvester Stallone, crowd members shouted, "Marcos yes! Rambo no!"

In a communique published Monday, Marcos charged that Zedillo's offensive was in direct response to the Jan. 31 White House announcement of a $53 billion loan package to help stabilize the peso:

"Mr. Zedillo has begun the payback of the loan. His message is clear: Either speak with submission on your knees in front of the supreme government, or with the support of my accomplices in (the United States) I will annihilate you."