For Americans as well as Mexicans, Sunday's elections in our neighbor beyond the Rio Grande can be described without hyperbole as the most important of the century. Sixty-five years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- the famous PRI -- are likely to be extended with a victory for Ernesto Zedillo, a 42-year-old U.S.-educated technocrat who is a disciple of incumbent President Carlos Salinas. But under what circumstances? And with what impact on Mexico's democracy, economy and relationship with the United States?
For the past six years, Mr. Salinas has applied rather than mocked the name of his party. His decision to open his country to free market forces has been nothing short of revolutionary after decades of corporate state control and ownership. Northern Mexico is booming as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the supreme Salinas achievement, takes hold. His use of the institutional strength of his party has been unrelenting in bringing modern amenities to the long-neglected countryside. It can be argued that Mr. Salinas has wrought more fundamental change, successfully, that any other world leader of this generation.
Yet upheaval on such a scale generates turmoil, and Mexico is no exception. Mr. Salinas' version of perestroika -- the transformation of the economy -- has deliberately been given priority over glasnost, or the opening up of the political system. And the result has been an armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, the assassination of PRI's original presidential candidate and such deep-rooted suspicion of fraud in the election system that Sunday's election could well lead to violence.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army roaming the Chiapas region is so formidable a force that the government has engaged it in formal negotiations, only to be rebuffed. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) on the left remains convinced that Mr. Salinas stole the 1988 election from its leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who is again in the field vowing that "we have the force and the resources to make our votes count." On the right, the National Action Party has found a crowd-pleasing candidate in Diego Fernandez.
The PRI occupies the middle, just where it wants to be, exploiting its ties to business, labor, peasant farmers, the bureaucracy, the press -- indeed the whole enchilada. Provided it runs a clean election, and provided it is seen to run a clean election by thousands of foreign observers, Mexico could return to relative tranquillity.
For the United States, an unchallenged victory by Mr. Zedillo would be a bonanza. Though he may lack charisma on the stump, his record as an enlightened budget director and minister of education is substantial. He could be counted upon to work intelligently with Washington on the immigration problem, drug trafficking and integration of the Mexican and American economies under NAFTA.
But first he has to win -- and win honorably.