Image: Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
A gubernatorial candidate in the Mexican state of Chiapas, Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, greets supporters on Sunday in Tuxtla Gutierrez.
updated 8/21/2006 4:41:28 PM ET 2006-08-21T20:41:28

A little more than 3,000 votes separated the candidates for governor in Mexico’s volatile Chiapas state Monday as each side declared victory in the latest competition between Mexico’s conservative ruling party and the party of leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

As results from Sunday’s election trickled in, Juan Sabines of Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, held a razor-thin lead over Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who also is backed by President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party.

With almost 94 percent of the 4,761 polling places counted, Sabines was leading with 48.42 percent, or 515,760 votes, to Aguilar’s 48.14 percent, or 512,736 votes.

Both camps held celebrations within blocks of each other in the steamy state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, with hundreds of people dancing and cheering.

Chiapas mirrors tension of national vote
Tensions have been running high in Mexico since the July 2 presidential vote, which leftist candidate Andres Manual Lopez Obrador lost to his conservative rival Felipe Calderon by about 0.6 percent, according to the official vote count.

Lopez Obrador has alleged fraud and his supporters have maintained protest camps in the heart of the capital for the last three weeks to demand a full recount, choking traffic in the megalopolis of more than 20 million. The Federal Electoral Court has until Sept. 6 to announce a president-elect or annul the election.

Lopez Obrador said he was keeping a close eye on developments in Chiapas.

His party ally Sabines, 38, said a PRD victory in Mexico’s southernmost state would help stabilize the country.

But Aguilar, 56, challenged his rival in a speech to supporters Sunday night to “scrutinize the race ballot box by ballot box to prove who won the elections” — echoing a similar demand Lopez Obrador has made of outgoing President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party, or PAN.

Unlikely alliance
In a surprise move two weeks ago, PAN withdrew its candidate and threw its support behind Aguilar. It was the first time PAN has formed an alliance with PRI since Fox ended PRI’s 71-year hold on the presidency in 2000. The withdrawn PAN candidate, Francisco Rojas, remained on the ballot, though, and had received 27,564 votes, or about 2.6 percent.

Many fear a loss in Chiapas by PRD could spark confrontations in Mexico’s poorest state, which is no stranger to bloody clashes. Zapatista rebels rose up briefly here in 1994 in the name of Indian rights, and there has been sporadic violence since then between radical members of the political parties, although recent years have been quiet.

“Chiapas is a point of influence for other states, and for that reason we must be more aware of who we vote for,” said Victoria Anta Carrillo, 64, among the first to arrive at the polls. “And we have to pray that everything turns out well.”

Election monitors note problems
About 1,000 national and foreign observers monitored the vote, with one group saying problems were widespread. Enrique Vera of the Mexican Electoral Observation Movement said irregularities included busing in voters and other tactics to boost Sabines’ vote total.

Police arrested four men for possible electoral violations, including a prominent labor leader allegedly carrying about $5,000 in cash to buy votes for PRI. The union denied the charges.

Meanwhile, Miguel Ballinas, a spokesman for PAN in Chiapas, said that local authorities in one Indian village opened the polls for just five minutes before saying the voting was complete.

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