Early results favor pro-Fox candidate in Chiapas vote

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico - A candidate allied to Mexico's president-elect defeated Mexico's long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party on Sunday, sending supporters into giddy celebrations in the streets.

Victor Pablo Salazar has vowed to step up efforts to end the six-year-old Zapatista rebellion there.

The election was a blow to the ruling party, known as the PRI, which was trying to rebound after after Vicente Fox won Mexico's presidency on July 2 and ended the party's 71-year reign in Mexico.

Shortly before 11 p.m., the state electoral comission said Salazar had apparently won with 57 percent to 43 percent for Sami David of the PRI, apparently based on exit polls.

Salazar's supporters began to celebrate shortly after polls closed when the TV Azteca network reported an exit polls showed Salazar had defeated David by 53-46 percent, with a margin of error or three percentage points.

The head of the National Actional Party, a coalition member, said that exit polls by four independent organizations show Salazar ahead by seven to 17 percentage points. ''All of the polls agree in saying that the indisputable winner'' is Salazar, Luis Felipe Bravo Mena told journalists in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

PRI officials immediately questioned the polls' validity and said their surveys showed David ahead in the vote for governor of Chiapas. ''We have different information,'' David told state television.

The TV Azteca report sent Salazar supporters into the streets of Tuxtla Gutierrez, honking car horns, waving flags and screaming in joy from the back of pickup trucks.

Fox issued a statement saying the vote ''confirms the will of the citizens to propell changes ... by way of democracy, legality and peace,'' a reference to the still-unresolved revolt by the Zapatista National Liberation Army that began on Jan. 1. 1994.

Fox repeated his promise to pass an Indians rights law and reduce troops in Chiapas, steps the Zapatistas have demanded.

The past six years have seen four governors in Chiapas, three of them emergency replacements for men driven from office by crises linked to the Zapatista revolt.

Salazar, who had been shown leading in pre-election polls, has vowed to aid federal peace talks between the rebels while cracking down on paramilitary groups he says have been encouraged by the current state and federal governments.

Though the Zapatista revolt led to only two weeks of open warfare, the guerrilla presence in the state's jungle canyons has led to repeated clashes between emboldened dissident groups and pro-government forces.

In Sunday's voting, electoral officials and observers had reported only scattered problems.

For some, however, voting was an act of courage.

Survivors of a 1997 massacre of 45 people in the village of Acteal marched for four hours through the mountains to vote in Los Chorros, the town that had expelled them and home to many of their paramilitary attackers. There were no polling places for absentee voters in the towns where the refugees are sheltered.

''The greatest fear the people have in coming to the polls is suffering an attack by the paramilitaries along the way,'' said Agustin Vasquez Ruiz, spokesman for the Las Abejas group of refugees from the Los Chorros area.

About 4,000 polling places were scattered throughout Mexico's poorest and most rural state, one where disputes over land, religion and Indian rights have often erupted into violence. It is a tough place to govern.

In 176 years, the state has had 166 governors - despite Mexico's practice of six-year terms over the past six decades.

On the day before the vote in the Zapatista village of San Jose del Rio in the Lacandon jungle, residents expressed wariness of any politician.

San Jose del Rio is only 105 miles from this state capital, but a hard six-hour's drive, some on tracks unpassable to most cars.

The region's impoverished coffee farmers describe themselves as rebel ''sympathizers,'' but they show the discipline of Zapatista stalwarts. While friendly, few will talk politics. None will give his name, saying they are forbidden to do so. All say they are ''neutral'' in the election, echoing Zapatista communiques.

Salazar is a former PRI senator who quit the party last year. As senator, he was a member of a commission that negotiated a partial peace deal with the Zapatistas rejected by the federal government. He says his election would be a key element in bringing peace.

''We are not friends'' with the Zapatistas, he said in a recent interview. ''I know them from the negotiations. I am not a Zapatista. But they have a great advantage with me: I am not anti-Zapatista.''

He said he wants to give the Zapatistas ''the dignified out they have been fighting for a long time.''

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