Yet Another Turning Point in Mexico Vote

Governed for decades by the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), the southern Mexican state of Guerrero is a land of stunning contrasts. Famed for the tourist resort of Acapulco, the entity hosts impoverished shantytowns and marginalized indigenous communities where basic services are non-existent and teachers a rare find. Notorious for outbursts of political repression like the 1995 Aguas Blancas massacre of unarmed farmers, the image of Guerrero bronco occasionally filters onto the world screen. Despite persistent government claims of a solid social peace, armed guerrilla groups of the left maintain a stubborn presence in the state.

Today Guerrero stands at a crossroads. A tightly-contested governor's election scheduled for Feb. 6 pits the long-ruling PRI and two smaller parties allied in the "Everyone for Guerrero" coalition against a three-party opposition block led by the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) called the "Guerrero Will be Better" coalition. When voters go to the polls, they will be asked to choose between federal Sen. Hector Astudillo of the PRI and his opponent, federal Deputy Zeferino Torreblanca, a man with a reputation as a reformer.

Acapulco supermarket worker Francisco Martinez says the race is generating excitement. "The PRI has always won the governorship," adds Martinez, "but there is an expectation now because the PRD is strong with Zeferino." As the first opposition mayor of Acapulco (1999-2002), Torreblanca is credited with attacking corruption and fixing financial irregularities in city government, as well as bringing services to poor sections of the municipality.

Although he is the candidate of a PRD-dominated coalition, Torreblanca is not a member of any party and has managed to stay clear of the fratricidal internal politics that rivet Mexican political life. Surpassing traditional party bases and taking on the air of a citizens' movement for change, the campaign has attracted tens of thousands of participants to rallies across the state. Torreblanca's campaign logo, a bold "Z", is visible everywhere. Interestingly, the election is being fought on an ideological terrain framed to the left. President Fox's center-right National Action Party is fielding a woman candidate, Porfiria Sandoval, but she has a very remote chance of winning since the PAN is marginal in Guerrero politics.

Both Torreblanca and Astudillo call for greater government social spending, reviving agriculture, supporting indigenous communities and creating jobs. According to Alejandro Arceo, a coordinator of the Astudillo campaign in Acapulco, the PRI candidate will ask the state congress to approve the 1996 San Andres Accords with Chiapas's Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) if elected. Reflecting the growing importance of émigrés, the Astudillo camp has organized a group of Mexican-born US residents to ensure a PRI victory.

Historically identified with governments which have suppressed popular movements, the PRI is ironically attacking Torreblanca, a businessman by profession, from the left.

"I don't know what is [Torreblanca's] ideology," says Arceo, "if it's with the political group he belongs to, the PRD or the right. This creates a lot of uncertainty among the electorate."

Shades of the Bush-Kerry bout, the Astudillo forces portray Torreblanca as the veritable flip-flopper, a man who blows with the political winds.

Former gubernatorial candidate and longtime PRD leader Felix Salgado, who currently serves as a coordinator of the Torreblanca campaign in Acapulco, counters that his candidate is a "nationalist businessman" who will clean up the corrupt political dealings that have dragged his state to the bottom of Mexico's social heap. "Guerrero's wealth is exploited," says Salgado. "Guerrero is rich with poor inhabitants and with rulers who come to power and become rich."

As the campaign enters its final days, reports of old-style vote-buying and excessive campaign spending, especially by the PRI, have been rampant. Additionally, new campaign tactics that employ modern negative campaigning techniques are rife.

Befitting the trivial bent of US media, press stories delve into the divorced Torreblanca's personal life. Contrasted with accounts of an aloof, affair-driven Torreblanca is the family man Astudillo, wishing television viewers a merry holiday season together with his smiling, happy family. In order to boost Astudillo's image, the PRI is employing phone banking and sending personal birthday greetings to potential voters. At one point, Astudillo supporters projected a giant image of their candidate onto the wall of one of Acapulco's towering hotels.

Creating a political storm was a series of anonymous bumper stickers that tried to link Torreblanca with the guerrillas and played upon the PRI's longstanding claim that the PRD represents "the party of violence." Plastered in Acapulco telephone booths were stickers with a prominent "Z" embedded in the acronym EZLN and featuring a picture of hooded Zapatistas accompanied by the question, "Guerrero Will be Better?"

Not amused, Torreblanca's supporters announced they would file election law violation charges with the federal Attorney General of the Republic. Astudillo spokesman Arceo denied that his candidate had anything to do with the controversial stickers.

Some observers consider the Astudillo-Torreblanca race a "laboratory" for next year's presidential election, when the competition is expected to be mean and nasty. While the Guerrero race will have local consequences, political observers like Mexican columnist Silvestre Pacheco consider the outcome "significant" for the 2006 presidential race. A PRI victory will certainly strengthen that party in its bid to recapture the presidency. On the other hand, a Torreblanca win would boost the prospects of the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexico City mayor who remains the country's most popular politician. Neither scenario bodes well for President Fox's PAN Party.

While the PRD is banking on victories in gubernatorial races also set for Feb. 6 in the states of Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo, a close vote in Guerrero will likely prompt a challenge by the losing side and add fuel to the political turmoil that increasingly characterizes the remainder of the lame duck Fox administration.

Kent Paterson is a writer based in Albuquerque, N.M., reporting from Mexico.

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