Mexican poll turmoil hits Chiapas state election

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At Angelita’s Kitchen, even the steaming, spicy prawn soup seems mild compared with the heated conversation among the stall’s customers.

“Sabines should never have abandoned the PRI for the PRD,” insists an irrate young man with a voice that gets louder with every sentence. “His father must be turning in his grave.”

A few months ago, such observations about one of the characters in Sunday’s election for governor of Chiapas in southern Mexico would have generated little interest beyond the borders of this impoverished state.

But all that changed when Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftwing presidential candidate, last month began contesting the result of the July 2 election in which he narrowly lost to Felipe Calderón, centre-right candidate for the National Action party (PAN).

Mr Calderón’s PAN is worried that if Juan Sabines, Mr López Obrador’s candidate, wins Sunday’s vote it could be the first step towards establishing a corridor of governors loyal to the leftwing leader’s Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) in the country’s south.

Mr López Obrador’s native state of Tabasco, which abuts Chiapas, holds its own race for governor later this year, and a PRD triumph there, following a victory in Chiapas, would almost certainly make things very uncomfortable for Mr Calderón should the country’s electoral authorities ratify his presidential victory.

By contrast, if the PAN can prevent Mr Sabines from becoming governor the party would doubtless feel it had drained momentum from Mr López Obrador’s increasingly radical “civil resistance” campaign, which has seen his supporters occupy a central avenue in Mexico. The protest has spread chaos throughout the capital city and on Monday, there federal police clashed with protesters trying to block the lower house of Congress.

In Chiapas, the result of this political manoevering is an election that looks increasingly like the melodramatic – and implausible – plot of a mid-afternoon Mexican soap.

Two weeks ago, Francisco Rojas, the PAN’s candidate, suddenly withdrew from the election to boost the chances of José Antonio Aguilar, candidate for the country’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000.

In response to the alliance, Mr López Obrador has thrown all his weight behind Mr Sabines, who until only a few months ago intended to run for the PRI. On Wednesday, during his second visit to Chiapas in just five days, the charismatic leftwing leader appeared on a stage in Tuxtla’s main square and began to work his magic.

Wrapping his hand around the chubby face of a small girl dressed in white, Mr López Obrador lavished praise on Mr Sabines as he told a packed plaza: “Victory for the PAN in Chiapas is morally impossible. We are going to help Juan become the next governor.”

Such support – combined with the fact that Mr Sabines’ father was a highly popular PRI governor in Chiapas – has helped the candidate obtain 38 per cent of the vote, according to a recent independent opinion poll. That compares with 30 per cent for the PRI’s Mr Aguilar and 19 per cent for Mr Rojas.

But Mr Rojas says Mr López Obrador’s growing involvement in the state election is polarising an already fractured population, and expresses concern that things could get out of hand.

“This election process could end in violence,” he told the FT in an interview. “If the vote is close López Obrador will apply the same tactics here as in Mexico City, and that would strain the tense relationship between the PRI and the PRD.”

The problem with Mr Rojas’ PAN-PRI alliance is that it has divided the PAN at both the local and national levels. One clear sign of the party’s diverging opinions surrounding the alliance came this week when Mr Calderón said he wanted nothing to do with it. Even Mr Rojas, who has a scar on his nose that he claims was the result of a beating many years ago by PRI militants, says he was mainly following party orders.

Mr Sabines says he is confident the alliance is destined to fail. “The whole episode has enraged many PAN members,” Mr Sabines told the FT this week. “It is a boomerang that has come right back in their face.”

The alliance also seems to have gone down badly with large swathes of the electorate, which is about 30 per cent indigenous, has the lowest educational levels in Mexico and, as the 1994 Zapatista uprising illustrated, has a recent history of social and political unrest.

What seems clear is that the result is not going to be simply a question of adding the PAN’s voting intention with that of the PRI. And that, to the considerable dismay of the parties trying to undermine Mr López Obrador’s intentions, means that Sunday’s election is still wide open.

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