MEXICO CITY. — Mexico City. -- Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is "the perfect dictatorship," says writer Mario Vargas Llosa, because for the last 64 years it has managed to keep control of the government, unions, media and academic centers without provoking widespread civil unrest or retribution from the international community.
One reason for PRI's success is its ability to change its ideologies to reflect the mood of the country and to attract new, energetic leadership every two or three years. It also benefits from massive patronage. And, critics charge, when necessary, the PRI rigs elections.
1994 promises to be a watershed year for the PRI. In January, the North American Free Trade Agreement will be implemented, slowly eliminating tariffs on goods shipped between Mexico, Canada and the United States. And in August, a new president will be elected to guide the country into the 21st century.
However, analysts are divided on whether 1994 will mark a new beginning for the PRI -- or the beginning of the end.
"Linking your economy to countries like Canada and the United States, and then trying to maintain an authoritarian system, cannot work," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a Mexico political analyst at the American Friends Service Committee. "It is too much of a contrast."
But Roderic Ai Camp, a Latin America expert at Tulane University, expects the system to survive at least another decade. "The party has a wide coalition because it provides for the demands of the elite," said Mr. Camp. "But it also does a good P.R. job of convincing people that it is looking out for the needs of the common man."
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has won his party widespread respect over his five years in office. He has been praised around the world as an enlightened reformer and one of the most successful world leaders of the day because of his dramatic economic policies.
He reversed protectionist laws and attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment. He has wrestled down inflation from more than 50 percent in 1989 to about 9 percent this year.
The president sold most government-owned industries and used some of the money for a massive public works program -- known as "Solidarity" -- that has provided thousands of poor communities with drinking water, electricity, hospitals, schools and paved roads.
He has enacted stricter environmental standards and initiated laws to make elections more fair.
Last week, however, it was clear that some things about the PRI -- including the will to hold on to power -- haven't changed.
On Sunday, the PRI announced that its candidate for president is Luis Donaldo Colosio, who resigned this week as the secretary of social development to accept the nomination. Instead of allowing the party's candidate to be determined by its rank-and-file members, the nomination was imposed from above an autocratic tradition called "el destape."
Presidents can only serve one six-year term, according to Mexican law. But "el destape" gives them the privilege of naming their successor. So far, at least, being picked for the nomination has been tantamount to winning office. The PRI has never lost a presidential election (and has lost local elections only occasionally).
Also last week, the PRI claimed a clean sweep in elections in the eastern state of Yucatan. Meanwhile, election observers reported dozens of irregularities at the polls, including stolen ballot boxes, power failures while votes were being counted, polls that remained closed most of election day, and unknown thugs hanging out in front of voting booths, intimidating voters by taking their pictures as they entered.
Victory margins announced by the PRI in some districts would have been possible only if there were significantly more votes cast than people registered to vote. For example, in the district of Chicxulub, 143 percent of registered electors cast a vote, according to the PRI figures.
Both "el destape" and the Yucatan elections sparked furious criticism and protests. Some analysts say that economic liberties allowed by President Salinas over the last several years have unleashed tremendous pressure for political liberties -- pressures that may prove overwhelming for the PRI.
"I feel we are at a historic moment where we have a lot of space to really push hard for democratic reforms," said Sergio Aguayo, a human rights advocate and political analyst at the Colegio de Mexico. "We are entering a minefield, but if we don't do it now, we will never do it."
In Yucatan, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) insists that it won the gubernatorial race and at least six of the 106 mayoral races in the state. Its protests have grown increasingly raucous, and, on Wednesday, PRI Gov. Dulce Maria Sauri Riancho resigned after charges of vote fraud.
Outbursts of civil disobedience have become the norm following state elections in Mexico -- President Salinas has had to ask three PRI governors-elect to step down over the last three years to prevent bloodshed in Michoacan, San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato. In each case, there were protests after the PRI claimed victory, the announced winner stepped aside, and Mr. Salinas named interim governors. The troubling pattern indicates the potential for nationwide unrest if public faith in elections is not restored before next year's presidential election.
"The only way the PRI can stay in power is through legitimate and credible elections," said Primitivo Rodriguez. "If they do not allow a fundamentally transparent election, they will not be able to govern. What happened in Michoacan and San Luis Potosi will be repeated nationwide."
That does not mean that the PRI machine will be unable to function. In fact, it has been carefully oiled and tuned for so long, that most of its parts operate automatically.
In February, President Salinas conducted a luncheon for the country's wealthiest businessmen where each pledged $25 million to the PRI presidential campaign. Presidential elections in Mexico -- where the minimum wage is $4 per day -- cost about $800 million and records of previous elections have shown that some public funds are used to pay campaign costs.
In the United States -- where minimum wage is $4.25 an hour -- the cost is about $50 million.
While PRI candidates always have the slickest posters and media campaigns, much of the party's campaign funds are used to pay "campaign workers." The party brings in scores of workers from rural areas and lodges them in expensive hotels. The party sponsors free barbecues, picnics and banquets in poor communities where the candidate distributes T-shirts, jackets and buttons.
This year, after angry criticism of the "$25 million luncheon," President Salinas and the PRI enacted a law that allows individuals to give no more than $330,000.
Constituents of opposition groups could never afford such donations. And anonymous gifts are still allowed, making critics suspicious that government funds will continue to be improperly used for PRI campaign expenses.
President Salinas also enacted reforms that he promised would give all presidential candidates equal access to the media. Still, not long after the reforms were adopted, the government canceled a popular radio program after its host interviewed opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a left-of-center politician who many believe was cheated out of victory in the 1988 presidential race.
And while Mr. Cardenas' nomination for president by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) received a brief mention on television and radio, the nomination of Mr. Colosio by the PRI was shown live on the national station Televisa and then repeated almost every hour along with lengthy biographies on the candidate.
"Mr. Colosio got more time on television in two days than Mr. Cardenas will get over the next year," Mr. Rodriguez said. "The government does not have to force Televisa to give more air time to Mr. Colosio. It is in Televisa's interest that the government stay in power."
Many say what makes the PRI most successful is its ability to change its philosophy according to the demands of the country or to take popular positions of its opponents and make them its own.
"It is a pragmatic party," said Mr. Camp. "It is not an ideological party."
In the past, the PRI has stressed the free-market ideas initiated by the PAN. And in accepting the PRI's nomination for president last Sunday, it appears Mr. Colosio will stress social reforms much like those proposed a month ago by the PRD.
"We'll give voice to those who have none, to the unprotected, the dispossessed," Mr. Colosio said to an exuberant audience last Sunday.
The PRI will use NAFTA to promise workers more jobs and better wages, a strategy that will likely allow them to win the elections without cheating.
"The PRI will play fair because they have to," he added. "And because they feel that they can win a clean election. They feel like they are in a lucky position."
"Polls show that if the vote were held today, the PRI would get around 55 percent to 15 to 20 percent for the PRD," said Jonathan Heath at consultants Macro Asesoria Economica. "The PRI's in a better position because they've fixed up the economy."
Just to be sure all is fair, Mr. Aguayo said, hundreds of nongovernmental groups around the country are preparing to launch an ambitious campaign to monitor the fairness of the presidential campaigns -- including fund-raising, campaign expenditures, media coverage and control of election operations.
At the same time, members of the different groups will sponsor seminars and workshops to educate people about their voting rights.
The elections will also be closely watched by human rights groups around the world -- particularly in the United States where many legislators opposed NAFTA because of undemocratic political and labor practices in Mexico.
"The opening of Mexico to the rest of the world will leave the government less able to use repressive means to maintain its power," Mr. Aguayo said. "I expect this will mean that different groups demanding freedom will emerge and multiply and that will cause the move toward democracy to accelerate."
Mr. Rodriguez points out that even if the PRI wins the election in 1994, a dangerous precedent could be set.
"People will see what it feels like to have their votes respected and they will demand that their votes continue to be respected," he said. "It will move from the election polls to unions.
"It will mean the end of vote-rigging and the end of keeping unions as well-oiled machines," he added. "This could mean the end of the PRI's grip on society."
Ginger Thompson is The Baltimore Sun's Mexico City correspondent.