MEXICO CITY -- Arturo Fuentes has his own method for choosing the best man to serve as Mexico's next president. He reads the candidates' faces.
He doesn't like the doleful countenance of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, the PRD.
"He has corruption in his face," opines Mr. Fuentes.
Ernesto Zedillo, the candidate of the center-right governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, Mr. Fuentes sees as "an honest, correct man."
But Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, the challenger from the rightist National Action Party, PAN, has Mr. Fuentes stumped:
"I can't tell about him. He's got a beard."
Mr. Fuentes pushes a taxi 10 hours a day through the lava flow of traffic that characterizes the world's largest city.
He is one of about 45 million people who, on Aug. 21, will elect a new president of this country and renovate the national congress.
Nine parties have posed presidential candidates. Only the three above have any chance of winning.
Many consider this election the most important in Mexico's modern history. It will determine -- not by who wins it, but by the way it's conducted -- whether Mexico will join that small but select minority of countries that honestly can be described as political democracies.
The idea of democracy has never been served in Mexico so passionately. A great number of people expect democracy to arrive Aug. 21. Another great number expect to be cheated out of it as they have been so many times in the past.
Widespread violence feared
Still a great many others fear that, should that happen, widespread violence could ensue, precipitated either by tTC disgruntled members of the opposition parties, the PRD, and the PAN. Or, in the event the PRI actually loses, by government die-hards.
The PRI has not lost a presidential election in 65 years. Not all its victories were fairly won. This party, wrote Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz, "has no internal democracy and is dominated by a group of hierarchs who, for their part, give blind obedience to each president in turn."
Many believe the last presidential election, in 1988, was stolen from Mr. Cardenas by the PRI on behalf of its candidate, the current and outgoing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
It is because of 1988 that 1994 has assumed such importance in the minds of Mexicans. This time, all over the country people are demanding an honest count.
If they don't get it, not only will Mexico be reconsigned to that limbo inhabited by politically underdeveloped one-party states, but all the extravagant anticipations of economic progress to flow from the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada might not come through.
Numerous citizen groups have formed to assure the "transparency" of the elections. The United Nations has contributed $1.5 million to one, the Civic Alliance. Come election day, many of the alliance's 15,000 volunteers will disperse through Mexico's cities, towns and rural parts on the watch for irregularities at polling stations.
Among the stranger fruits of the current electoral climate is the National Democratic Convention, called by the leader of the Chiapas Zapatista rebels, Subcommander Marcos.
The uprising Jan. 1 by an Indian rebel army in Chiapas stunned Mexico. When the fighting between the rebels and government soldiers ended, more than 100 people were dead.
The violence, plus the name of the rebel group -- the Zapatista Army of National Liberation -- evoked unsettling memories of the Revolution of 1910 and heightened the tension already spread over the country by the electoral campaign.
Some of the more vocal born-again democrats to emerge in Mexico of late have been found in the PRI itself. Late last week, Mr. Zedillo used the word democracy 39 times in a speech of only 41 paragraphs.
President Salinas, the compromised victor of 1988, has said that the cleanliness and transparency of the election is the most important thing for the country, more important than who wins. For the first time ever, the government has invited international election observers into the country.
He has instituted electoral reforms. New, tamper-proof voter cards have been issued. The Federal Electoral Institute has been made autonomous. Mr. Zedillo, who was drafted by President Salinas to stand in after the assassination March 23 of its original candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, has made extravagant promises. The most important one is his vow to end one of Mexico's most traditional, undemocratic conventions: the "dedazo," the selection of the PRI's presidential candidate by the outgoing president.
These measures and promises, PRI critics assert, have been coerced out of the ruling party by the universal demand for democracy, and by fear generated by the Chiapas violence.
And though there has been some loosening of the controls over the national television networks, which previously had virtually ignored the other candidates (in a country where only 5 percent of the people read newspapers), the PRI campaign is pretty much the dominant one. It is the richest party, the most thoroughly organized nationally. Some say the most ruthless.
Some voters decide whom to vote for in unorthodox ways, like Mr. Fuentes. Others think its not worth the bother.
Said Tereso Augustin, who runs a kiosk on the wide Insurgentes Avenue: "What difference does it make? They all steal when they get in."
The polls, notoriously unreliable in Mexico, offer differing outcomes. But it is probable that the election will be decided by the 30 percent of voters who live in the countryside, who have not been reached by the pollsters, whose intentions remain unknown, and who live in areas where election observers are fewest.