REGARDLESS of the result, the July 2 national election will be an important turning point in Mexico's history.
After decades of one-party government, this year's election will be the most transparent since the founding of the current political system under the 1917 constitution.
The long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has established a set of procedures designed to guarantee that the outcome of the balloting is respected. While there is some skepticism on the part of the two major opposition parties, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), widespread international and domestic press and media coverage should support the efforts of the independent Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to provide reliable results in an orderly fashion.
The 2000 campaign is being contrasted sharply with the 1988 national election. CuauhtM-imoc CM-ardenas, also then the PRD presidential candidate, is widely believed to have defeated the standard bearer of the PRI, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Mr. Salinas was declared the victor and he governed Mexico for the next six years.
In 1994, following a year of traumatic political assassinations and peasant uprisings in the state of Chiapas, Mr. CM-ardenas was defeated by incumbent President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de LeM-sn in what was viewed to be a relatively clean electoral process. Mr. Zedillo promised to make voting procedures more open and fair, and he is given credit for having done more than any of his predecessors to make good on that promise.
This year's governing party candidate, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, was nominated in the first internal primary ever held by the PRI. A former governor and cabinet officer, he has the apparent support of Mr. Zedillo and the well-organized national party machinery. But there is a sense in Mexico that Mr. Labastida -- if he wins -- may be the last PRI chief executive.
The leading opposition candidate, Vicente Fox of the PAN, has emerged as a highly credible alternative to the PRI. While the public opinion polls show Mr. Labastida and Mr. Fox exchanging first place during the last few weeks, it is clear that Mr. Fox has established a national reputation and has excited a great deal of interest in the campaign.
In the first (and perhaps only) television debate, held in late April, Mr. Fox was viewed as the clear winner. Plans for a second debate with only the three leading candidates have not yet materialized because the contenders have not been able to reach agreement on the format for the encounter.
The challenge for Mr. Labastida, if the PRI does carry the national election, is to convince all of Mexico that it was a clean victory. For Mr. Fox, the principal issue if he is declared the next president is to take hold of a decades-old bureaucracy that is totally dominated by the governing PRI.
A second issue for either of the candidates is the outcome of the congressional elections, which will be held simultaneously with those for president.
For the first time, in 1997, the two opposition parties captured a majority of the seats in the lower house of the Congress, giving way to a process of power-sharing in the past three years that is unprecedented in Mexico. The governability of the country will depend to some degree on the ability of either candidate to fashion a working coalition on key legislative issues with the legislators.
Mexico is an important partner for the United States, and the outcome of the July 2 vote will help define the future of the relationship. Mexico is our second largest trading partner in the world and a fellow member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The next administration in Mexico City will continue to be our interlocutor on a range of contentious issues from drugs to illegal immigration. A free and fair election, no matter who wins the vote, will help guarantee a deepening of our ties with our southern neighbor, with whom we share a 2,000-mile border.
As the next president of the United States takes office in January, his Mexican counterpart will have been sworn in a month before. A fair and open election, giving the next president of Mexico a legitimate mandate, will facilitate the bilateral ties between our two countries.
Riordan Roett is director of the Western Hemisphere Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Johns Hopkins University in Washington.