Mexican puts principles first Candidate: This year looks to be the last hurrah for a somber left-winger seeking Mexico's presidency.


TANTOYUCA, Mexico - Banners flutter from an outdoor stage as a sound system introduces Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, candidate for president. One speaker after another lauds him and promises to support him. As each finishes, a brass band explodes in tune.

On stage, Cardenas seems oblivious to it all. He stands staring sternly out above the crowd and into the distance, his arms folded in front of him.

When he finally takes the microphone, his voice rarely varies in tone. He speaks of the harm done by "neoliberal policies" and of the government selling out Mexico to "foreign interests." Without much excitement, he says he has "no doubt" he will win.

This somber style is the trademark of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Mexico has come to know it at thousands of similar rallies during his presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1994. Those were epic battles against the massive electoral machinery of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

But today something is missing: people.

The crowd extends only a couple of dozen yards down a main street by the plaza in this small town in the state of Veracruz. After each oration, only desultory cheers are heard.

"I've been supporting him for more than 10 years," says Santos Lavoriano, a seed merchant. "The last time he came here, there were a lot more people."

Political times have changed. The July 2 presidential vote will be Mexico's first truly competitive election. The PRI could lose - for the first time since its rule began 71 years ago.

Another measure of change is the unchanging figure of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas himself - Mexico's icon of left-wing political dissent. As Mexico has changed around him, his campaign style and his rhetoric are fixed. Once they seemed new and electrified crowds; now they seem old and tired, and Mexico no longer responds.

Polls show Cardenas a distant third, with about 15 percent of the vote - 20 to 30 points behind his main rivals Vicente Fox, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), and the PRI's Francisco Labastida.

Many political observers have written off Cardenas' campaign as exhausted. People within his own Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have suggested publicly that he withdraw and let anti-PRI voters coalesce behind Fox.

"Behind his back, people whisper about his defeat," says Layda Sansores, a PRD senator who recently left the party to support Fox. "But no one dares tell the emperor directly that he is walking naked."

Cardenas insists he will win. "Today we might be at some point in the polls, but on Election Day we'll be on top of the polls and the vote results," he says. "There are a lot of events left before July 2."

Yet crowds that once numbered in the thousands now more often number in the hundreds. This will almost certainly be the last hurrah for the man who is Mexico's best-known politician from its best-known family.

Cardenas' father, the late Lazaro Cardenas, is Mexico's most beloved modern president. During his term, from 1934 to 1940, he nationalized the oil fields and redistributed millions of acres of land to peasants.

Lazaro Cardenas also constructed the modern Mexican state - bringing farmers, teachers, unions and popular organizations into the party and government under the control of an all-powerful president.

The one-party state he created gave way to corruption, authoritarianism and eventually the weakening of those same organizations. His son has been trying to topple this system for more than 12 years.

In December 1987, after being passed over as candidate for president, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas bolted from the PRI. He unified the fractious left and drew the poor and working classes, peasants, people frustrated with Mexico's corruption and lack of democracy.

With no organization, and facing a media blackout, Cardenas waged a crusade for president. The campaign ended in the disputed election of 1988. Many people believe the election was stolen from Cardenas through widespread vote fraud and an opportune election-night crash of the vote-counting computer after first returns showed him leading.

Cardenas' campaign "profoundly changed the Mexican political system," says Enrique Semo, a historian and member of the PRD's national executive committee. "It showed the possibility of beating the ruling party and the immense dissatisfaction in wide sectors of the country."

Striking back, the PRI government aimed its massive power at Cardenas and the PRD. The media would report only negatively about them. As recently as 1994, a radio host was fired for having Cardenas on his show.

Dissident movements had emerged to oppose the PRI regime in the past, says Lorenzo Meyer, a historian at the Colegio de Mexico.

"All were destroyed, in good measure because the people who led these movements couldn't hold up," he says. "[Cardenas] is the only one the system hasn't been able to destroy after one election."

Meyer attributes Cardenas' survival to an unbending moral sense of politics, in which winning an election mattered less than staying true to principles in the face of withering attack.

"He could ignite emotions because he was serious and severe. People looked at him like an Aztec idol, that behind him was hiding all the power of race and identity," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a senator and former aide who is now an adviser to Fox.

Aguilar Zinser remembers a 1988 trip to Acapulco for a rally scheduled for 5 p.m. Every few miles, people would stop the caravan along the road and hold an impromptu rally. Cardenas arrived in Acapulco at 1 a.m. to find 50,000 people still waiting for him.

At times he still ignites fervor. During four recent days of campaign swings, his caravan was stopped three times for such unscheduled rallies.

Still, says Aguilar Zinser, "he looks empty. It's his age. He's bitter. People don't like him the way he thinks he should be liked, so he's resentful. He doesn't communicate the same spirit."

Cardenas' current poor showing also has to do with a two-year stint as mayor of Mexico City described by many observers as lackluster.

His party is divided and lacks a solid grass-roots organization. Junior party leaders complain about his domination.

"At some point ... he came to the conclusion that he wouldn't be president," says Semo. "Now this is about leaving strong the myth of Cardenism. [But] the message of Cardenism isn't appropriate to the 21st century.

"To repeat 'no' to privatizations, the sale of oil, all that - isn't to confront the challenges of the 21st century as they really are. You have to have a response to the expansion of the free market, to globalization, to the urbanization of Mexico, to the problem of the transformation of old industry."

In Cardenas' final campaign, the news media are open to him. Television is a critical element in political campaigns, but the Cardenas style remains stern and untelegenic.

The one thing about Mexican politics that might have changed least in the past 12 years is the man who did most to bring about that change.

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