By Smith, Matt
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 42, No. 34
MERIDA, Yucatan, Mexico -- This rain-drenched, insufferably hot colonial capital, host last month to hundreds of thousands of pope-watching pilgrims, has lately become home to a religious spectacle of another sort.
Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party, PRI, and the opposition National Action Party, PAN, have been struggling to out-Catholic each other as they posture and politic for the Nov. 28 gubernatorial elections.
Since the elections occur at about the time the U.S. Congress will vote on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and roughly the same time of dedazo -- the traditional process by which Mexican presidents choose their successors -- this contest is crucial for the PRI and the administration of Mexico President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Merida, with its large Mayan indigenous population, is more than 90 percent Catholic, a fact lost on neither the PRI nor the PAN. Local wags say Salinas' warm reception of Pope John Paul II here two weeks ago was conducted with the November elections in mind. And local PRI radio reports, coinciding with the visit, thanked the president for bringing the pope here.
The upcoming campaign for PRI candidate Frederico Granga Ricalde is sure to feature references to a series of Salinas reforms allowing churches to own property and run schools, said Fernando Medina, a political editor at the Yucatan Daily in Merida.
But the PRI may be outflanked on the Catholic front by the PAN, which promises a strong run for the governorship with its candidate, outgoing Merida Mayor Ana Rosa Payan.
The PAN finds its roots in the pro-church Sinarquista and Christero movements that formed soon after the 1920 Mexican Revolution. And Catholic churches have long served as organizing halls for the PAN, said Soledad Laoeza, a political historian at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.
Indeed, Rosa Payan speaks openly of her strong Catholic faith. She told NCR that if she weren't a politician, she would likely be a Catholic missionary, working with the poor in Africa.
During the last few years, Catholic priests have been urging the faithful to vote in Yucatan towns where high abstention rates have helped PRI candidates. Some have denounced government fraud in their sermons, Medina said.
"The church doesn't get involved in party politics," Merida Bishop Manuel Castro Luis said. "But we do what we can for the common good. For example, we tell our parishioners of their duty to vote."
The Yucatan elections have taken on national importance in Mexico. …