PRI pulls Mexican election victory out of hat yet again

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THERE IS something magical about the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which appears bound for an astonishing 70 consecutive years in power. Its opponents say it is black magic.

Just last week President Carlos Salinas de Gortari told European diplomats his party would win Sunday's presidential and legislative elections with 49 per cent of the vote. Last night, with two- thirds of results in, the PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, had 49.1 per cent. Mr Salinas is a man of vision.

The PRI was set to win all three national elections - for the presidency, Congress and Senate - but there remained a dark cloud over the proceedings: had the party, despite Mr Salinas's promise of the cleanest election ever, pulled off its most sophisticated fraud?

Mr Zedillo, 42, made a triumphant address to party officials yesterday. 'This was a victory for the PRI of tomorrow, the PRI which will respond to the demands of the people,' he said. It is a promise he will have to live up to if he is to survive a scheduled six- year term. As the left-wing opposition and independent observers denounced anything from massive fraud to widespread irregularities, many political analysts said Mr Zedillo will have to back up his words immediately if he is even to make it to the hand-over from Mr Salinas on 1 December.

If Mr Zedillo's percentage does not ease over the 50 per cent mark - and few here would be surprised if it magically does so - the ruling party will have been rejected by a majority of voters for the first time.

The left-wing opposition candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, trailing in third with 16.5 per cent behind the conservative National Action Party's (PAN) Diego Fernandez de Cevallos with 28.3 per cent, has not accepted the results and has promised to continue nationwide protests. Mr Cardenas says 8 million people were unable to vote because of an invalid new electoral register. Such a figure could drastically affect the vote in an electorate of 45 million and an estimated 70 per cent turn-out.

A PRI official admitted yesterday at least 1 million people may have been prevented from voting due to a shortage of ballot slips. In making the rare confession - the PRI controls the electoral apparatus - he was no doubt well aware that a million votes would not affect the results as they stand.

Supporters of Mr Cardenas's Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) have occupied several public buildings, blocked roads and promised a campaign of 'civil resistance' to protest what they say was 'enormous fraud'. A respected independent monitoring group, the Civic Alliance, said there were widespread irregularities and was due to announce its preliminary report last night.

Nothing has yet been heard from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) guerrillas in the south-eastern state of Chiapas, who had hinted they may return to armed struggle if a 'transition government to true democracy' is not set up.

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