CHANGE comes slowly to Mexico, the country with the world's longest-serving ruling party.
Ever since the bloodletting of the 1910-1917 revolution led to the emergence in the 1920s of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), power in Mexico has changed hands through backroom deals in which the incumbent president has chosen his successor -- whose subsequent electoral victory was a formality, achieved when necessary by fraud.
No longer. That makes Mexico's presidential election today a historic event.
The outcome is uncertain. After months of campaigning, the latest opinion polls give only the narrowest of leads to the PRI's Francisco Labastida over Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). The leftish Cuauhtemoc Cardenas trails in third place.
But if Mr. Fox has at least a chance of winning, it is also because of a second big change. This is the first presidential election to be supervised not by the government but by an independent institute whose probity is accepted by all.
Will that be enough to ensure a clean vote? A swelling chorus has arisen recently to complain that the PRI has been up to its old tricks, showering voters with largesse (ranging from washing machines to bicycles and cash) and threats (to withdraw anti-poverty funds from opposition supporters, for example).
Such reports should be kept in perspective: Even the opposition says their effect is confined to relatively few voters, mainly in rural areas. Even so, such tactics are worrying: In a tight election, they may prove decisive.
The first thing to hope for is that the election should produce a clean and clear winner, relieving Mexico of protracted dispute about the result.
But better still if that winner were to be Mr. Fox. He is not without flaws. He combines stubbornness with an impulsive tendency to flip-flop on issues. Some Mexicans are offended by his rude language; others by his militant Catholicism and his opposition to abortion.
But there are two overriding reasons for desiring an opposition victory. First, it would, almost by definition, complete Mexico's transition from one-party state to plural democracy.
And the alternation of power would be beneficial in itself, because many of Mexico's problems stem from the fusing by the PRI of the functions and interests of party, state and nation.
Second, Mr. Fox, a former businessman (and Coca-Cola manager) looks, on balance, to be the candidate likeliest to push forward with the reforms his country needs. That is not immediately obvious.
However slowly, Mexico has changed much in the past 20 years, especially under President Ernesto Zedillo. That is not least because of the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is drawing the country's economy, and perhaps its politics, into ever-closer association with those of the United States.
Since the currency collapse and deep recession of 1994-1995, Mr. Zedillo has put Mexico on the road to sustained economic growth.
Macroeconomic management has been less opaque than in the past. So, too, has been the selection of the PRI's candidate: Mr. Labastida was chosen by an open primary.
Provided the election comes off cleanly, those changes have increased the chance that this year Mexico will avoid the economic or political crises that have marked the start of the past four presidential terms -- despite some signs of economic overheating, and worries about the possible impact of a slowing economy north of the border.
Mr. Zedillo's record, and the PRI's adaptability, might seem to be strong arguments for Mr. Labastida. He is an experienced politician known for his negotiating skills, though he is not a liberal technocrat like Mr. Zedillo.
But change and its benefits have been distributed unequally. If all Mexicans are to get full value from NAFTA and from economic growth, their next president needs to complement an emerging democracy with a market economy and a reformed state. That involves separating political and economic power.
Mexico is still burdened by the PRI's corporatist history: The state let favored businessmen enrich themselves in return for political loyalty.
One costly result was a banking crisis which deprived most Mexicans of credit during Mr. Zedillo's term, and left a bill of $100 billion for bailing out the banks (and some of the bankers).
Another has been a monopolized economy. State monopolies still control electricity distribution and oil. A privatized near-monopoly, Telmex (whose boss, Carlos Slim, is Latin America's richest man), has used its political clout to delay a fully competitive telecoms market.
Instead of mutual back scratching, Mexico needs impartial regulation of its economy to promote competition, and deregulation of government, and also, in some ways, its expansion: petty officialdom still exacts its venal toll, while the state does far too little to give its poorest citizens decent schooling and health.
The next government also needs to do much more to combat crime, corruption and powerful drug gangs.
Mr. Labastida claims to help those who suffer from change. But as the chief beneficiary of the old ways, the PRI is unlikely to be as vigorous in trying to abolish them as Mr. Fox.
Whoever wins the election will probably face a Congress divided three ways, as it has been since 1997. Governing Mexico will thus not be easy; reforming it harder still. That is another reason for wishing the election to be both clear-cut and clean.
This article first appeared in the Economist of London