MEXICO CITY -- Some 50 congressional candidates from the party that has ruled Mexico for two-thirds of a century gathered not long ago to hear a consultant discuss an opinion poll for the July 6 elections.
Good news, he said.
Their party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- the PRI -- had "a solid floor of votes," he said. More good news: Support for one of the two major opposition parties was soft and could switch to the PRI.
The real news was that the PRI felt its candidates actually needed to prepare for a campaign. What makes these elections important, even transcendent, is that people expect them to be real: hard-fought, relatively fair and, above all, with the outcome in doubt.
On Sunday, voters are electing six governors, 32 senators, all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies and, for the first time since 1924, the mayor of Mexico City. And for the first time, the PRI is not absolutely assured of winning.
Mexicans have become more critical, more politically aware, less cowed by authority. And the political culture has responded to that, modernizing virtually overnight.
"We've never had this kind of democratic uncertainty," said Alvaro Arreola, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University.
So at their meeting, the PRI's congressional candidates talked about going door to door, how to use the media and creating effective ads. Once a political monopoly, the PRI now has to compete and sell itself to voters.
"Things have changed," said Silvia Sayago, a PRI spokeswoman. "The PRI now faces strong opposition. This is a political education."
Its competitors are the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Their change in fortune is due in part to more equitable campaign financing laws and to a change in the press. As recently as three years ago, it was rare to hear the PAN over the airwaves; the PRD couldn't buy air time at any price. President Ernesto Zedillo changed that when he began his six-year term in December 1994.
The use of public opinion polls is another indicator of change. All three major parties are using polls to help define strategies, said Ana-Maria Covarrubias, a pioneer of Mexican political polling and president of the Association of Marketing Research and Public Opinion Agencies. Pollsters are a finding a restless public.
"People feel an enormous disillusionment due to the economic crisis. Especially in Mexico City, people don't have a fear of changing the party in power," Covarrubias said.
"When the system was able to give people economic stability and work, people weren't very politically conscious. Now they are much more sensitive to the importance of politics and voting. We've been in [economic] crisis really for 20 years now."
That makes change the theme of the moment. PAN has used several professional movie directors and cameramen to come up with some powerful black-and-white spots on television and in movie theaters. In one, street beggars ask for change that no one has: "This July 6, give them the change that we all want. Vote for the PAN."
For the PRD, the election marks a new beginning. Formed in 1989, the party endured harassment from the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and grew obsessed with doctrinal purity. But with the cessation of government hostilities and the media now open to all comers, the PRD has modernized its tactics.
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD candidate for mayor of Mexico City, is meeting with business groups and has embraced some of the tenets of free trade in an attempt to attract middle-class voters. The party has flung itself fully into the media it once mistrusted; Zedillo recently complained the PRD was "using ads just like vendors of potato chips, beer and soda."
Cardenas' race for mayor has garnered the most attention. Until now, the mayor was appointed by the president. The new mayor will have to untangle a city that has functioned for decades on back-room deals, a slap on the back, a bill in the pocket -- anything but the law. The new mayor will automatically be an early favorite going into presidential elections in 2000.
But at least as important is what happens in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico's lower house of congress. All 500 chamber seats are up for election. Under the electoral law, a party winning 42 percent of the congressional vote nationwide receives half of the seats. (Three hundred seats are district seats. The remaining 200 are awarded based on each party's percentage of the vote.)
The PRI could poll that high, but it doesn't seem likely. So for the first time in six decades, the party could lose its chamber majority.
The pessimists' scenario is that the PRI and the other parties would then bicker and accomplish nothing. The optimists' scenario is that the parties would recognize the need to negotiate and compromise.