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Mexican president challenged as party militants occupy state legislature


MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's ruling party was faced yesterday with an open revolt challenging the authority of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and senior party officials in the key central state of Guanajuato.

Officials of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were pleading late yesterday with about 2,000 party militants to vacate the state legislature.

About 15,000 militants stormed the legislature late Friday and early yesterday morning, preventing the 26-member body from naming an interim governor.

The militants, many of them elected officials, were protesting the decision by the PRI's Ramon Aguirre Thursday to renounce his victory in the gubernatorial race in the fraud-tainted Aug. 18 elections.

Mr. Aguirre's resignation, prompted by President Salinas, was taken in the interest of preserving public order after it became clear that the governor-elect lacked support in the state's three largest cities.

Vicente Fox, the gubernatorial candidate of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), claimed that the PRI stole more than 200,000 votes and vowed a campaign of civil disobedience until his victory was recognized.

The Aguirre resignation opened the way for the PRI-dominated state legislature to name an interim governor who, in turn, would schedule a new gubernatorial election next year.

But the PRI demonstrators forced the legislature into recess, while state party officials attempted to persuade them that the battle was over and that "discipline must be maintained," said Luis Ferro de Sota, the president of the state party.

The demonstration in Guanajuato, the capital of the state, was unprecedented and stood in sharp contrast to the usual tractability of members of the PRI, which has ruled Mexico for 62 years.

It showed a breakdown in the chain of command that begins with President Salinas in Mexico City and spreads throughout the country to the states.

The militants were particularly angered when a legislative committee with an opposition majority recommended that the interim governor be Carlos Medina Placencia, the PAN mayor of Leon, the state's largest city which is Mr. Fox's stronghold.

The naming of Mr. Medina Placencia would all but give the governorship to Mr. Fox since the PAN would have control of much of the electoral process.

Moreover, it would put at risk thousands of state jobs now held by PRI supporters, many of whom were among the demonstrators.

If the PAN succeeds in winning the governorship, it would be only the second time in modern Mexican history that a non-PRI governor has occupied a state house.

The PAN's Ernesto Ruffo won the governorship of Baja California in 1989.

PRI militants in that state did not demonstrate despite their bitterness over President Salinas' decision to recognize the victory.

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