With the final results of Mexico's Aug. 21 election now a matter of record, it is increasingly clear that the political left suffered a devastating defeat not only in the numbers but even more in expectations. Its candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, won only 16.6 percent of the large turnout vote, compared with the 30.90 percent he received in the highly tainted elections of 1988. All this in spite of a rebellion in Chiapas, the assassination of the ruling party's first candidate and what was perhaps the cleanest vote count in Mexican history.
How could it be that Mr. Cardenas did so badly? He fell from a pinnacle in which he could credibly claim the 1988 election was ** stolen from him to a third-place finish in comparatively fair balloting. Mr. Cardenas' appeal was to the poor, but the poverty-plagued majority voted in overwhelming numbers for Ernesto Zedillo, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Why this outcome? The expectation that Mr. Cardenas would do well was fostered by leftist intellectuals who have demonstrated over the years that they are out of touch with the masses. Their dislike of the PRI is so intense that they dismiss its good works as fraud and its reforms as regression.
When rebellion and assassination grabbed the headlines early this year, the left intelligentia extrapolated this to mean Mexico was ripe for a Cardenas triumph or for revolution. Neither has happened. One reason, no doubt, is that Mr. Cardenas is a lackluster candidate. If Mexico is due for a Lenin, it will have to be someone else, perhaps Commandante Marcos, the masked leader of the Chiapas insurgents. But the explanation of the Cardenas failure runs deeper. The more the Mexican people heard about upheaval, the more they snuggled close to the status quo. The more they suffered a decline in their standard of living, the more they looked to the PRI for the government largess so necessary for survival.
Despite his victory, Mr. Zedillo with 48.77 percent of the vote had the worst official showing of any candidate in 65 years of PRI rule. Nonetheless, he probably got a higher percentage in this year's well-monitored election than President Carlos Salinas really obtained in the 1988 spectacle. The only party that actually scored major gains was the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), whose vote share went up from 16.71 percent to 26.69.
One possible conclusion: Neither U.S.-style democracy nor latter-day leftism will be Mexico's fate. The United States needs to accept Mexico's singularity as evidence of a powerful neighbor deserving respect on its own terms.