MEXICO CITY -- "Democracy is to the PRI," said Primitivo Rodriguez, "what kryptonite is to Superman."
Professor Rodriguez, a historian, might have added that the kryptonite pill of democracy can be as bitter to those who believe in its good effects as it is to those who don't.
During the political campaign that climaxed here Sunday with presidential and congressional elections, a single assumption was shared by many of those who had devoted themselves to ensuring the fairness of the vote. It was that democracy could not come to Mexico unless the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, were defeated.
It was rarely stated that baldly, since that might suggest partisanship and might compromise those people and agencies that,with every good intention, assumed the task of refereeing the election.
These were the tens of thousands of Mexican electoral observers, the unofficial ones, marshaled by community organizations grouped in the Civic Alliance coalition. Other unofficial observers were the foreigners here, mostly from the United States, organizations such as Global Exchange out of San Francisco, and delegations sent by think tanks supported by the Democratic and Republican parties.
This attitude was a natural response to the situation here. Who else had ever rigged an election in Mexico but the PRI? Who else but the PRI used its control of the media against challengers?
If there is widespread corruption in Mexico and occasional political violence, as everyone knows there is (more than 200 opposition politicians have died under suspicious circumstances in the past six years), who is at the root of it? Who else but the minions and mandarins of the PRI?
So imagine the shock Sunday night when initial projections indicated that the PRI, led by its candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, was winning again.
These preliminary results were fortified by an actual vote count sufficient to the point that Mr. Zedillo formally declared victory.
Only one major candidate disputed him, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, head of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, the PRD.
The PRI victory was not as sweeping as others had been in the past. With 65 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Zedillo had just under 50 percent. No PRI presidential candidate has ever received such a weak endorsement. But it was a victory nonetheless.
And it reflected the largest voter turnout in Mexican history. Over 70 percent of the 45.7 million registered voters participated.
Voting is not compulsory in Mexico, and all the experts had said that a large turnout would favor the opposition parties, either the National Action Party, the PAN, led by Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, or the PRD.
Almost half voted to give the PRI another chance and extend its 65-year hold on power another six.
After confirmation of the PRI victory, bewilderment seemed to reign in the headquarters of the Alliance. Though Alliance observers had reported a great number of irregularities, no one in charge there said these were significant enough to change the outcome.
Neither, so far, has any other major group. Yesterday the International Delegation, which grouped such people as Jim Wright, the former speaker of the U.S. House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada, issued its report.
It cited many irregularities and violations of electoral laws, from intimidation to overspending, but concluded that "it had received no evidence to suggest that they would have affected the outcome of the presidential contest."
The San Angel Group, an informal assembly of academics, journalists and intellectuals that came into being last April to comment on the electoral process, was as stunned as the Alliance.
According to Javier Winner, a member, many thought the new measures put into place to guarantee a fair vote would assure the PRI's defeat.
Thus, the assumption that the PRI could not win a more or less fair vote was the election's first casualty. The Mexican people had given this creaky, corrupt old party another chance.
Many ascribed it to fear of reprisal from the PRI, fear of change, the devil-you-know-rather-than-the-devil-you-don't syndrome.
Only the people in their vast collective consciousness know the real answer to that question. But the fact stands there, indisputable: The PRI remains in the saddle.
But is it the same party? Is the party that won this year's election the same one that has stolen so many others? Or has the PRI been changed irrevocably by the experience of the campaign and election?
To Professor Rodriguez, who favors the PAN, which he believes is the only internally democratic party in Mexico, the outcome may have been the most desirable.
"Neither of the other parties is prepared to govern Mexico," he said in an interview before the election. "Neither has the experience or organization."
A weakened president
A PRI victory with less than a majority vote means a PRI president unable to exercise the kind of imperious authority all previous Mexican presidents have had. The presence of opposition senators and deputies will require negotiation and compromise, in itself a kind of democratic process.
If the current trend holds, the new Senate will have 94 PRI members, 25 PAN and 9 for the PRD.
Professor Rodriguez last week described President Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his party's principal antagonist. "Salinas," he said, "is the main enemy of the PRI now."
Why? Because he spent nearly $1 billion on electoral procedures to try to guarantee a fair election. It was he who invited the observers. It was his electoral reforms that put the party's future at risk. Everybody knew people were fed up with the PRI. Given a chance, wouldn't they throw them out?
When it came down to it, they didn't.