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Opposition leader: Mexican ruling party guilty of dirty election politics

April 19, 1997

SAN JUAN DEL BOSQUE, Mexico (AP) _ Nicolas Gomez Ramirez fingered the wad of cash he just received through a government farm-subsidy program _ about $29 per acre of cornfield.

For this dirt-poor Tzotzil Indian in the highlands of southern Chiapas state, it’s little help. But it’s enough to ensure that, in elections July 6, he will vote for the party handing out the money.

``This is an advance on the subsidy. The second payment will be in early July,″ Gomez Ramirez said, his grin showing rot-blackened teeth. ``Here, we are members of the PRI. I will vote for the PRI.″

Officials of the PRI _ the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party _ deny using government money to buy loyalty for the important mid-term federal congressional elections.

The timing of the subsidy payouts here ``is a coincidence,″ state official Jack Demostenes said when asked about the crowd of peasants receiving checks in front of local PRI offices Thursday.

But opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador argued Friday that the handouts are part of a longtime PRI practice of using government resources in party campaigns, and he blamed President Ernesto Zedillo, a PRI member, for perpetuating the tradition.

``The attitude that the president is assuming, consciously or unconsciously, is giving the green light to dirty politics,″ said Lopez Obrador, president of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Mexico City media reported Saturday that a federal court overturned an election commission regulation that had banned government announcements of public works projects within 30 days of an election.

The six-judge panel ruled Friday that the Federal Electoral Institute had overstepped its powers by enacting the rule in March. The decision came in response to an appeal filed by the PRI.

The court also ordered that the institute disband a commission charged with investigating unfair pressure on voters, ruling that the body had been created without proper authorization.

Since coming to power in 1929, the PRI has been notorious for winning elections through various unscrupulous means, ranging from outright vote-buying to tampering with the polls and strong-arm tactics.

New laws in the past three years, especially in urban areas, have removed much of the control the PRI exercised over elections. At the same time, opposition parties have been gaining strength, making it increasingly unlikely that blatant irregularities will go unnoticed.

However, in poor rural areas such as Chiapas, old habits die hard.

The stakes are high for the July elections: The PRI could, for the first time in its history, lose its absolute majority in the federal congress. Lopez Obrador claims that the ruling party, in a bid to ensure victory, has been doling out not only farm subsidy checks but also food and construction materials.

Conservative political leaders this week also charged Zedillo with stumping from the presidential office.

Zedillo, however, says he has taken steps to increase electoral integrity since he took office in December 1994. He points to recent reforms, including ceilings on campaign spending and greater independence for the Federal Election Institute.

``I have been careful in government programs that there be no type of favoritism or discrimination for party reasons,″ Zedillo said in a televised address.

Several incidents over the past few years have suggested the lines were blurred.

_ In 1995 Chiapas elections, PRI mayoral candidates arranged election-eve distributions of food from a government program that gives aid to poor families.

_ In 1994 gubernatorial elections in neighboring Tabasco state, peasants blocked roads into their villages, saying they wanted to stop PRI officials from delivering cement, tin roofing, chickens and liquor to potential voters.

An investigation into the PRI’s use of millions of dollars in government funds for such gifts has languished.

_ In Guanajuato state in 1991, PRI officials spent 70 percent of their yearly infrastructure budget in the three months prior to the gubernatorial election, and PRI candidates attended events inaugurating public works.

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