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Mexican political parties fight for Catholic votes.

MERIDA, Yucatan, Mexico -- This rain-drenched, insufferably hot colonial capital, host last month to hundreds of thousands of pope-watching pilgrims, has lately become home to a religious spectacle of another sort.

Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party, PRI, and the opposition National Action Party, PAN, have been struggling to out-Catholic each other as they posture and politic for the Nov. 28 gubernatorial elections.

Since the elections occur at about the time the U.S. Congress will vote on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and roughly the same time of dedazo -- the traditional process by which Mexican presidents choose their successors -- this contest is crucial for the PRI and the administration of Mexico President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Merida, with its large Mayan indigenous population, is more than 90 percent Catholic, a fact lost on neither the PRI nor the PAN. Local wags say Salinas' warm reception of Pope John Paul II here two weeks ago was conducted with the November elections in mind. And local PRI radio reports, coinciding with the visit, thanked the president for bringing the pope here.

The upcoming campaign for PRI candidate Frederico Granga Ricalde is sure to feature references to a series of Salinas reforms allowing churches to own property and run schools, said Fernando Medina, a political editor at the Yucatan Daily in Merida.

But the PRI may be outflanked on the Catholic front by the PAN, which promises a strong run for the governorship with its candidate, outgoing Merida Mayor Ana Rosa Payan.

The PAN finds its roots in the pro-church Sinarquista and Christero movements that formed soon after the 1920 Mexican Revolution. And Catholic churches have long served as organizing halls for the PAN, said Soledad Laoeza, a political historian at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.

Indeed, Rosa Payan speaks openly of her strong Catholic faith. She told NCR that if she weren't a politician, she would likely be a Catholic missionary, working with the poor in Africa.

During the last few years, Catholic priests have been urging the faithful to vote in Yucatan towns where high abstention rates have helped PRI candidates. Some have denounced government fraud in their sermons, Medina said.

"The church doesn't get involved in party politics," Merida Bishop Manuel Castro Luis said. "But we do what we can for the common good. For example, we tell our parishioners of their duty to vote."

The Yucatan elections have taken on national importance in Mexico. The PRI's president canceled a weekend visit with the governor of Chihuahua in late August to personally register Granga Ricalde as the party's candidate in Merida.

The "official party," as it is called in Mexico, will cut no deals permitting a PAN victory in Yucatan, said Fernando Ortiz Arana. "We don't want to learn to be an opposition party."

A PRI-PAN deal, involving an order to PRI operatives to refrain from ballot-stuffing, might avoid postelection fraud protests at a time when the U.S. Congress will be preparing to vote on NAFTA, Mexican observers say. Such protests in the states of San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato two years ago effectively ended Salinas' honeymoon as a political reformer.

Some fear widespread fraud protests in the Yucatan could further chill U.S. enthusiasm for the agreement. But more than NAFTA is at stake in the Yucatan. The race is the last political contest before the July 1994 Mexican presidential elections, and a PRI loss here in November could set the tone for next year's campaign, said Jaime Gonzalez Graf, director of the Mexican Institute for Political Studies.

A PRI gubernatorial loss around the time of the dedazo could paint the party as weak and indecisive during the days leading into the spring campaign and could inspire Mexican opposition voters, who until recently tended to stay home on election days.

With so much to lose politically, government sensitivity to fraud is likely to take a back seat in Yucatan, Gonzalez Graf said: "When the time comes, the PRI will win there at all costs. And the party has the technology to help them do that without much problem."

The PRI has a long reputation for stealing elections in Yucatan, but locals lately have become impatient with voter fraud, and the PAN is stronger here than it has ever been, Medina said.

Whoever wins in November will serve only one and one-half years before facing reelection, thanks to a recent constitutional change. But locals are nonetheless passionate about the campaign.

Some Merida residents, like butcher Fausto Coba, predict violence if the PRI resorts to fraud. "The people here won't accept it anymore," he said.

Rosa Payan wouldn't discount the possibility of political violence. She said the PAN is committed to pacifism but acknowledged that the elections would be tense at best.

"The government and its party don't like it when we put something in its way they can't get around," she said. "One thing is certain: The people are going to insist on their right to suffrage."
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Title Annotation:Yucatan
Author:Smith, Matt
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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