Mexico's image is on the line as millions cast votes in hopes they'll be counted


MEXICO CITY -- Millions of Mexicans are voting for a new president and Congress today in a crucial election that many hope will change the very nature of Mexico's political system.

Will the elections be fair? Will the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which has dominated Mexico for 65 years, cede power if it loses? Will there be violence?

These and similar questions and expectations have fueled the electoral debate during the campaign. The major candidates agree that the most important thing is not who wins but that whoever does must win fairly.

Mexico, a one-party state for so many decades, is struggling to realize itself as a pluralist democracy. It is for that reason that this election has transfixed the nation and drawn so much attention from abroad, especially the United States.

Hundreds of U.S. "guests" are in the country to observe the elections. The foreign news media are deployed in force.

As they line up at polling places in the remote hamlets of Chiapas in the south, in the teeming neighborhoods of Mexico City, or up on the border in boisterous Tijuana, Mexicans are mainly eager to see whether their votes will be honestly counted.

Said Primitivo Rodriguez, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico: "People do not expect these elections to be totally clean. But they expect most of their votes to be respected."

If they are not, he predicts an explosion of protest.

Theodore C. Sorensen, the former speech writer for John F. Kennedy, was hired to examine the government's new system designed to assure the fairness of the vote. He concluded that these procedures could produce "a substantially free, fair and honest election."

But, mindful of the PRI's history of election theft, he said that would apply only if the procedures were honestly implemented.

"It's a big if, I know," he admitted. Then he left the country.

It is widely believed that outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his progressive allies in the PRI very much want a clean count, if only to show trading partners that Mexico is a

democracy as well.

They are opposed by reactionary elements within the party, the so-called "dinosaurs," who benefit from the corrupt practices long associated with the PRI.

3 major candidates

President Salinas is limited by the constitution to one six-year term. Nine parties have offered presidential candidates, but only three have a chance of winning. They are Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon of the PRI; Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party, the PAN; and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, the PRD.

Though these candidates and parties differ ideologically, their programs are not widely divergent. All endorse the North American Free Trade Agreement. All promise to create a million new jobs over the next few years.

To achieve this, Mr. Fernandez of the PAN would extend the privatization of state-owned companies begun by the PRI even to such nationally sensitive enterprises as the railroads. His is the party of Mexico's entrepreneurial class. It is the farthest to the right, middle-class, Roman Catholic and traditionalist.

Mr. Fernandez, 53, is a lawyer and rancher. He is the best speaker of the three. He is flamboyant, affects a beard and favors cigars, neither a common taste here. He is the son of the founder of the PAN, a party brought into being in 1939 to oppose the policies of the late and revered President Lazaro Cardenas, father of the PRD candidate.

Mr. Cardenas, 60, burst like a comet across the national political firmament after his defection from the PRI in 1987. A former governor of Michoacan state, he ran for the presidency in 1988. Many believe he won but was deprived of it by PRI fraud when the vote-counting computers inexplicably malfunctioned.

His is a leftist party, the party of university students, cab drivers, workers, kiosk owners, and other small businessmen and some intellectuals. Six years ago Mr. Cardenas called for a moratorium on the payment of Mexico's external debt but has since withdrawn that position.

He plans to stimulate the economy by increasing public spending by nearly 25 percent. He does not favor nationalizing state industries, but would not take back any so far privatized or close the economic opening engineered by President Salinas.

Glum candidate

Mr. Cardenas rarely smiles. He is an uncompelling speaker. One pTC

observer remarked that he "looks like a man whose dog just died."

Ernesto Zedillo, 42, fills perfectly the profile of PRI presidential candidates of recent years. He is a Yale-educated economist, a technocrat who has never held elective office. He was chosen to run after the PRI's first candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated March 23.

The PRI is so vast it includes both populist and entrepreneurial fraternities under its roof. Thus, Mr. Zedillo's program feeds the appetites of both: more social spending for one, further privatizations for other.

He has also promised to effect the separation of the party from the government if elected, an operation similar to detaching Siamese twins.

During the months prior to today's vote, most polls have favored Mr. Zedillo, giving him between 43 percent and 46 percent of the vote, with Mr. Fernandez garnering between 19 percent and 22 percent, and Mr. Cardenas only 9 percent or 10 percent. Two major factors discourage reliance on polls. One is the high number of people who have declared themselves undecided, almost 25 percent. The other is the lack of polling in rural areas, where almost 30 percent of the 45 million voters live.

Low turnout favors PRI

A high turnout is expected to benefit the opposition parties, a low one the PRI.

Today's election is the culmination of a nine-month campaign carried out against the backdrop of a number of events that shocked the nation.

It all began with an armed uprising on Jan. 1, the day the North American Trade Agreement came into force. An Indian peasant army in the remote southern state of Chiapas seized the old colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas and declared war on the Mexican government.

During the fighting between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and Mexican army troops, more than hundred people were killed before a cease-fire was agreed to.

Less than three months later, on March 23, the presidential candidate for the ruling party, Mr. Colosio, was assassinated at a rally in Tijuana.

Both events struck hard at Mexicans' sense of themselves, and blurred the image many of them had of their country.

The uprising in particular recalled the violence and anarchy of the Mexican Revolution.

The fact that the insurgents named themselves after one of the principals of the revolution, Emiliano Zapata, and that their grievances were similar to those that animated Zapata, only added to the feeling that Mexico was, in a sense, still linked to its violent and feudal past, and had not really progressed into the modern world, as the NAFTA agreement with the United States and Canada seemed to confirm.

The killing of Mr. Colosio suggested a more specific instability within the PRI. There are few people in this country who believed that the man accused of killing Mr. Colosio, Mario Aburto Martinez, acted on his own. That's the official version.

But most believe he was killed at the order of someone, or some faction, within the PRI.

This was done, speculation has it, either as a way of expressing disapproval of President Salinas' liberal economic policies or of his overt attempts to make today's election a fair one, thereby introducing true democracy into Mexico.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad