Mexico governor's race another heated battle

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico -- Mexican police said Saturday they had broken up a vote-buying scheme in Chiapas on the eve of state elections, which will be closely watched in a country already straining under the turmoil of a disputed presidential election last month.

Four alleged supporters of Mexico's leading leftist party were arrested Friday after authorities said they were caught trying to give away 36 tons of construction material to Hurricane Stan victims who promised to support the party's gubernatorial candidate.

The suspects were charged with violating electoral laws, said Jose Domingo Perez, spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

Aurora Guillen, a spokeswoman for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, said the party had no ties to the suspects and denied it was involved in vote buying. She charged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was behind the accusations. The PRI's candidate, who is also backed by President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, is running neck and neck with the PRD's contender.

Food for votes

"We are stepping away from any accusation or act with which the PRI wants to hurt us," she said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The state's chief of staff, Roger Grajales, called a news conference Saturday to defend the Chiapas government, whose governor backs the PRD's candidate. Grajales said the materials being distributed belonged to a federal program, pinning the blame on Fox's administration. Federal officials could not be reached for comment.

Chiapas resident Rosendo Paniagua said he was asked to hand over his voter registration card and told to vote for Juan Sabines, the former mayor of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, or he wouldn't receive a box of soup, milk, cooking oil and other basic food supplies from the city.

Paniagua said he and some 1,000 other senior citizens collected the foodstuffs after promising to vote for Sabines "or they wouldn't give us anything."

The suspects were detained in the town of Cacahoatan near the Pacific coast, which is still recovering from the October hurricane. It contributed to flooding and mudslides that killed 71 people in Chiapas state and left more than 650 dead -- and 820 missing -- in Guatemala. Others were killed in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.

Today's election in Chiapas, the country's poorest state, where Zapatista rebels briefly rose up against the government in 1994, will be the latest test of a young democracy already strained by the closest presidential vote in the country's history.

The outcome could further escalate the political crisis that has seized the capital and southern Oaxaca City since last month's disputed presidential election.

Sept. 6 deadline

The PRD's presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has called for around-the-clock protest camps to try to overturn ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon's slight advantage in the July 2 presidential vote, citing fraud in the federal election.

The Federal Electoral Court has until Sept. 6 to announce a president-elect or annul the election.

Earlier this week, Lopez Obrador took time away from weeks-old demonstrations in Mexico City to lend his star power to the narrow race in Chiapas. On Wednesday, Lopez Obrador told a crowd of thousands in Tuxtla Gutierrez that Sabines "will win by a wide margin, and will demonstrate that the next governor of Chiapas will be legal and legitimate."

Sabines is facing Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas, the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Aguilar is also backed by President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN. Polls show the two lawyers running about even.

Some worried that a loss by Sabines, who has promised to implement Lopez Obrador's anti-poverty proposals including monthly pensions for the elderly, could spark confrontations in Chiapas -- a state with a large Indian population bordering Guatemala where paramilitary groups linked to the PRI have caused past violence, although they have been quiet in recent years.