Mexico's once-stable orbit is beginning to wobble. The predictable tides that ebbed and flowed for 65 years no longer respond to the pull of the world's longest-ruling political party. The latest polls show that its colorless presidential candidate stands a good chance of losing the Aug. 21 election, breaking a line of succession that began in 1929.
The biggest challenge to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is coming from Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a 53-year-old mildly irreverent lawyer who rocketed to fame during the nation's first televised presidential debate last month.
Even if Ernesto Zedillo, the PRI's candidate, is elected president, he will no longer wield presidential power that had few equals outside of North Korea.
His predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, has effectively curtailed the power Mexican presidents held over Congress, the central banking system and the electoral process. In doing so, he sought to erase a dictatorial image that was becoming an embarrassment to U.S. politicians who had argued that Mexico's modern democracy deserved to be embraced by the rest of civilized North America in a free trade agreement.
The image thing was not helped by U.S. congressmen wanting to know about Mexico's treatment of labor unions, its belated enforcement of environmental laws, its police torture and a political system so perfect that no opposition party was able to win a governorship in any of the 31 states for 60 years.
The Mexican government could not answer such questions with a wink and smile -- as it did before its cowed and, all too frequently, bought, national press.
Its "stable democracy" was further unmasked New Year's Day, when a bunch of Indians declared war on President Salinas and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect that day. Two months later, Mr. Salinas' hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was gunned down in Tijuana, and Mr. Zedillo was hurriedly shoved out the door to take his place.
Mr. Zedillo's Yale doctorate in economics proved a frail weapon against a suddenly anarchic and revolutionary period in Mexican history, and events quickly cut him down to size.
In keeping with the new Mexico, Mr. Zedillo participated in the nation's first televised presidential debate. His opponents were Cuautemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party and Mr. Fernandez of the centrist National Action Party, known by its Spanish acronym PAN.
Of the three, only Mr. Fernandez was a politician worthy of the name. Mr. Zedillo and Mr. Cardenas were of the old school, lofty, full of principle, fatally self-centered and boring.
Mr. Cardenas, who many people believe defeated Mr. Salinas in
the 1988 presidential election, came across as a cigar store Indian. Mr. Zedillo appeared the classic technocrat who knew a lot about the international corn market but nothing about the price of tortillas down the street.
Mr. Fernandez quickly landed a few haymakers. Mr. Zedillo, who played a major behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Salinas' economic reforms, was asked to explain how the vaunted economic growth of 6 percent a year registed .5 percent last year. Mr. Cardenas was attacked for his failings as governor of Michoacan state before he quit the PRI for the opposition.
The Mexican electorate was astounded and delighted. Mr. Fernandez quickly became the leading candidate in the polls as "Diegomania" swept the country. Unlike his rivals, Mr. Fernandez cut his teeth as parliamentarian for his party in the lower house of Congress. And he seemed to have a better grasp of the things that matter to average Mexicans: jobs, education and food.
And unlike the Democratic Revolution Party, the National Action Party is well-organized, financed and focused. Its central message: Economic reform is meaningless without democracy.
Fernando Estrada, a PAN congressman and one of its international representatives, notes that the party controls three state governorships and numerous municipalities with a population of 15 million.
The man behind the party's good fortunes is Carlos Castillo, who has brilliantly forced President Salinas to cede power in closely-fought elections in Guanajuato state and Merida, the capital of Yucatan state.
But while PAN deserves credit for being at the right place at the right time, NAFTA has produced its own Renaissance, forcing Mexico to loosen its one-party rule. The chief beneficiary has been the PAN, whose economic philosophy is shared by President Salinas and the other technocrats within the PRI.
The election, of course, is still weeks away, and Mr. Fernandez's lead in the polls over Mr. Zedillo is tiny, 28 percent to 26 percent, with Mr. Cardenas getting 9 percent. But the same MORI-Este Pais poll shows 30 percent undecided, a group that has historically favored the challengers.
"What I find interesting is that, with all the uncertainty and anxiety, one would expect people to rally around the entrenched PRI," said John Bailey, a Mexican specialist at Georgetown University. "This just hasn't happened so far."
Mr. Zedillo, the PRI presidential candidate, has a difficult row to hoe, particularly since the national attention will become fixated this week on Mexico's chances in the World Cup soccer championship. The presidential campaign will effectively cease in the public mind until the national team is either defeated or achieves immortality.
In any case, the candidate is from the technocratic wing of the party but must rely on old party hacks called "dinosaurs" to get out the vote. President Salinas and his party chairman, Mr. Colosio, spent a good deal of time weakening the power of the dinosaurs in the labor, farm and bureaucratic wings of the party. Their chief vehicle was Mr. Salinas' national self-help program, which Mr. Colosio headed at the time of his death.
With his assassination in March, however, the program was thrown in disarray, seriously weakening what amounted to a parallel political organization that dispensed $2 billion a year. Thus, Mr. Zedillo is forced to rely on the party's traditional anti-democratic "alchemists" to deliver the vote. Their specialties are vote rigging and payoffs.
Whether stealing the election is still possible is an open question. Thanks to electoral reforms -- enacted in part at the behest of the rebellious Indians -- voters are being issued tamper-proof registration cards, the election commission has been made independent of the PRI, and the candidates are to get more or less equal coverage by the electronic media.
Similar promises were made in the 1988 election and violated with impunity. The state elections late last year in the Yucatan apparently were stolen by the PRI. Opposition parties recently charged that Mr. Salinas' agriculture minister -- a Tyrannosaurus rex of a dinosaur -- was using state funds to support Mr. Zedillo. He was cleared without any investigation.
Such shenanigans may have been tolerated in the past. But in the NAFTA era, the Mexican electorate -- whether they are Indians in the south or members of the waning middle class -- appear to want a change. The PRI, they say, must lose for Mexico to win.
John McClintock, a copy editor for The Baltimore Sun, was The Sun's Latin American correspondent, based in Mexico City, from 1987 to 1992.