MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's ruling party is expected to regain sufficient congressional strength in today's off-year elections to enact sweeping constitutional changes in a number of sensitive areas, from oil to religion.
The elections are an important test of how popular President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is at midterm. Many people think his liberal economic policies have succeeded in pulling Mexico out of its 10-year economic crisis.
Only three years ago, he was elected by the smallest margin in the ruling party's history. But by shedding state-owned companies, reducing the $100 billion foreign debt and opening the nation to foreign investment, the 43-year-old president is perceived to have turned the economy around.
If his party succeeds in winning the two-thirds majority needed ,, to enact constitutional changes, he is expected to eliminate protectionist measures that might hinder a free-trade agreement being negotiated with the United States and Canada.
DTC The elections also are a test of whether Mexico is becoming truly democratic or whether the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party known as the PRI -- will continue its 62-year domination, much of it with fraud and vote-rigging.
Voters will be electing a new Chamber of Deputies, half of the 64-seat Senate, six governors, six state legislatures and the Mexico City representative assembly, a powerless advisory council.
Analysts expect the opposition to win the governorship in San Luis Potosi state and possibly in Guanajuato.
Only once in modern history -- in 1989 -- has an opposition candidate captured a governorship.
But the most significant election battle is expected to be over the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, where the PRI lost its constitutional majority three years ago.
If the PRI gets 335 of the 500 seats, the president is likely to press for far-reaching constitutional changes, senior Mexican officials say.
Foremost among the changes would be to permit foreign investment in Mexico's undercapitalized oil industry and farming sector.
Treasury Secretary Pedro Aspe, a leading contender for the 1994 presidential elections, tipped the government's hand recently in Los Angeles when he said that there was no economic reason not to return Pemex, the state-owned oil company, to private ownership.
Many do not expect that, but the government is likely to permit foreigners to hold risk contracts for oil exploration and to participate in distribution and refining.
Though officially off the table, oil is one of Mexico's main bargaining chips in the free-trade talks being held with the United States and Canada. The agreement is expected to be ratified next year, creating the world's largest trading bloc.
A beefed-up PRI majority in the lower house also would permit the rewriting of Mexico's 1974 trade law limiting foreign ownership of companies to 49 percent. Such a change now is allowed only under a presidential edict, which some foreign companies fear would not have the same effect as a law.
Another expected change would ease the constitution's severe anti-clerical provisions, including the bans on foreign clergy and on church-owned property.
The administration also is expected to enact laws permitting farmers to have full title to property under Mexico's unique ejido land tenancy system, which now permits farmers the right to work the land but not to own it.
Many of the ejido properties are tiny, inefficient plots that provide a bare subsistence living for their farmers. In Guanajuato state, for example, 75 percent of the land is ejido, but the remaining privately held property produces three-quarters of the crops.
The changes are in keeping with the philosophy of Mr. Salinas, who already has turned Mexico away from its protectionist, socialist past toward a free-market economy open to foreign investors.
Many of the changes have been discussed privately by senior officials in the Agriculture, Treasury and Commerce ministries, but they stood little chance of being enacted without a stronger PRI majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
In the 1988 election, Mr. Salinas was faced with a political crisis fueled by triple-digit inflation and a 50 percent drop in buying power. The PRI's 75 percent majority in the Chamber of Deputies fell to 57 percent. The center-left coalition headed by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas also picked up four seats in the previously all-PRI Senate.
This year, the inflation rate is expected to fall below 20 percent, growth in the gross national product could top 5 percent, and Mr. Salinas' popularity rating is about 60 percent. Many PRI candidates hope to ride his popularity to victory.
Moreover, the Party of the Democratic Revolution led by Mr. Cardenas has failed to live up to its early promise and now is behind the National Action Party in most polls.
Indeed, the National Action Party, or PAN, is the principal member of a three-party coalition considered the most likely to pull off a gubernatorial upset in San Luis Potosi, where Salvador Nava Martinez is challenging the PRI's Fausto Zapata.
Another possible upset could occur in Guanajuato state, where the PAN's Vicente Fox is battling the PRI's Ramon Aguirre for the governorship.
The only opposition governor ever elected in 62 years of PRI domination was the PAN's Ernesto Ruffo in Baja California state in 1989.