An election that can change a regime

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY - When Mexicans go to the polls Sunday, they will be electing more than a president. They will be choosing their future and passing judgment on their past.

They could remake their country entirely. More than just an election, July 2 could be Mexico's version of Berlin in 1989, or Chile's plebiscite on Augusto Pinochet in 1988 - a change of regime rather than of administration.


Polls show that 60 percent of Mexicans want a change. But two opposition candidates divide the anti-government vote, which may allow the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to retain power.

Mexico is the oldest one-party state, ruled by the PRI since 1929. Formed to unify the country and provide for bloodless succession of power, the party, operating under an all-powerful presidency, has just about fused with government and taken control of most aspects of Mexican life. But its legacy in the past three decades has been flagrant corruption, electoral fraud, recurring economic crises, countrywide poverty, mass emigration to the United States and environmental disaster.


For years the party rigged elections and either crushed or bought off dissidents. But Mexico has not been immune from the democratic changes sweeping the world. Opposition parties now govern 10 states, as well as Mexico City and numerous other cities. Mexicans have become more active, more critical. The PRI no longer controls the country as it did.

The presidency is the party's last bastion of power, and the nerve center from which it has controlled Mexico. Using the ballot to remove it from the presidency "would be the most revolutionary thing that has happened in Mexico's history," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, an independent senator.

"Revolutions we've had plenty. Coups we've had plenty. Long-lasting regimes impossible to dislodge we have had plenty. [But] in the entire history of Mexico," Aguilar Zinser continues, "we have never had a regime replaced through an election. Presidents and dictators go either because they are forced from office by revolution or because they appoint their own successor."

Great effort has been made to see that this election will be the cleanest and most competitive in Mexico's history. The government budget for Sunday's vote is twice what it spends annually on science and technology research. Several hundred election observers from foreign countries will be on hand. Sixty-four polling places will be set up along the border for emigrants coming from the United States. (A proposal to allow Mexican emigrants to cast absentee ballots in the United States was blocked by the PRI. Polls and simulated elections show that emigrants would overwhelmingly vote against the ruling party.)

The election will be the first national test of the country's election board, the Instituto Federal Electoral, which was made independent of PRI control in 1996. The agency has overseen a number of state elections and recognized numerous opposition-party victories, but this will be its first presidential election.

"We believe we've done everything we can within the law," says Emilio Zebadua, a political scientist and member of the council that oversees the agency. "We'll arrive at July 2 with a very strong IFE."

The PRI's Francisco Labastida, 57, a lifelong politician who has held cabinet posts and a state governorship, leads the opinion polls. But Vicente Fox, 57, a rancher, former president of Coca-Cola de Mexico and former governor of the state of Guanajuato, is showing slow but steady advances. He is the candidate of the center-right National Action Party (PAN).

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, 66, making his third run as presidential candidate of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is a distant third.


Fox's style of campaigning is blunt and informal - a major change for a country accustomed to stylized politicians. He has won the two presidential debates, and has demonstrated appeal to the young and to people in poor and working-class areas that the PAN, a party associated with the business elite, has never before courted.

In contrast, Labastida's style has been bland. He cultivates an image of calm and collected statesmanship, attempting to contrast himself with Fox's sometimes erratic style. While Fox holds six to eight campaign events most days, Labastida holds two or three.

Columnists call his effort "campaign lite," but Labastida has one enormous advantage - the huge party and government electoral machine. There are signs around the country of a resurgence in the old PRI practice of using government programs to buy votes and pressure people to vote for the party.

In the state of Yucatan, the PRI's Gov. Victor Cervera took out a bank loan to pay farmers in May the agricultural subsidy that the federal government doles out to states in July. The interest on the loan will be paid by the government of Yucatan, though that money is not in the state's budget.

In parts of Chiapas, there are reports of local power barons suppressing Fox signs and leaflets. The election board has also noted publicly that media coverage, especially on television and radio, has grown increasingly slanted toward the ruling party.

President Ernesto Zedillo has inaugurated nationwide an unprecedented quantity of public works, which the daily newspaper Reforma valued at 4.3 billion pesos - 300,000 pesos an hour.


The electoral board has publicly asked the president to put a lid on the pork barrel. Zedillo has praised the board's independence at home and abroad, hailing Mexico's emergence as a true democracy. But he has not responded to its criticism of the public-works campaign.

"The message he's sending is that he has an interest above his interest in the equity of the electoral process," says Zebadua.

This election will be the swan song for Cardenas, Mexico's best-known politician and son of its best-loved ex-president. His break with the ruling party in 1988 began Mexico's move to democracy. His insurgent run for president mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. Many Mexicans believe that election was stolen from Cardenas.

Today, though, Cardenas is a shell of his former self. His rallies are often sparsely attended. His poll numbers consistently have been below 20 percent - but enough to split the anti-PRI vote.

Cardenas' leftish PRD and Fox's rightish PAN have factions that hate each other more than they hate the ruling party. Cardenas' campaign rhetoric aggressively attacks Fox and often ignores Labastida. Other leaders of his party and La Jornada, a pro-Cardenas Mexico City daily, follow suit, lambasting Fox almost daily.

"Cardenas has been very clear," says Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist at CIDE, a private Mexico City university. "His strategy, for many reasons that would be interesting to explore, is: 'We have to stop Fox. If I can't win, then Fox can't either.' "


"His role now is to guarantee PRI victory," agrees Aguilar Zinser, a former aide who broke with Cardenas and now advises Fox. "If there is a PRI victory we will owe this to him."

Fox often has been his own worst enemy. He occasionally lets his blunt style go too far, offending people and raising questions about his stability. As Fox has gained ground, Labastida and Cardenas are trying to paint him as a man devoid of ideas, who will promise anything to get elected.

Polls and recent elections have shown that Mexicans "want change, but they don't want to run any risk," says Edna Jaime, a researcher at the CIDAC think tank in Mexico City. "It's totally contradictory. ... Vicente Fox needs to sell a message of certainty. But he's not doing that because he's very volatile in his words and actions. He's not generating certainties."

The PRI is the only truly national party. The others are strong in some parts of the country and almost absent in others.

The PRI is also aided by its long monopoly on power.

Javier Trevino, a Labastida adviser, says Mexico's culture of obedience to power is centuries old. The PRI and its top-down way of governance, he says, is the modern version of the Aztec and Spanish ruling elite: "There's 3,000 years of history and culture and values here. You're not going to have observers coming in from Global Exchange in San Francisco to tell you what to do."


The PRI's core vote is about 35 to 40 percent of the electorate. That may be enough to win in a three-candidate race. Either way, the July 2 presidential election will shape the Mexican political scene for years to come. Either Mexicans will opt for six more years of PRI rule - extending the party's term in office to 77 years - or they will remove it from the presidency and turn to the difficult task of creating a new way of governing.

Ousting the PRI is "the only way to really advance in the construction of democratic institutions," says Jaime. "If the PRI wins, I think we'll have more of the same: very slow change. The problem is, the world is running. To walk slowly is to be left behind."

Profile of Mexico

CAPITAL: Mexico City

AREA: 758,242 square miles. Its border with the United States is 1,864 miles long.

POPULATION: 97.4 million, 58.7 million eligible voters .


LITERACY RATE: 89.4 percent (1997).

RELIGION: Roman Catholic. GDP: $570 billion in first quarter 2000, per capita, $5,800

INFLATION: 12.3 percent in 1999. Forecast for 2000, 9.1 percent.