Possibilities for Mexican presidency become wide open

Mexico City mayor slips as early front-runner


MEXICO CITY -- The scramble for Mexico's presidency in 2000 has become a true horse race, with the early favorite, Mexico City's leftist Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, slipping into a virtual tie with a conservative competitor in a well-regarded opinion poll.

Cardenas had been given the best chance of becoming Mexico's first president from outside the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in Spanish) since 1927. But the mayor is burdened by perceptions that he has not delivered on a pledge to tame crime in this sprawling metropolis.

His status as front-runner has collapsed. A Lou Harris affiliate's survey this month put Cardenas a mere point ahead of Vicente Fox, governor of the thriving industrial state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.

Critics blame Cardenas' performance on crime.

When he became Mexico City's first elected mayor in 1997, he said he would not seek the presidency if he could not clean up the city.

Even members of Cardenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) are reminding him of that pledge.

"He has not made Mexico City safer," said Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a former Cardenas ally who is his chief rival for the PRD presidential nomination. "He shouldn't run."

Munoz Ledo's sharp words have echoed throughout Mexico City.

"Public insecurity is among the reasons the mayor's job-performance rating is so poor," said Vicente Licona of Market Researchers, Lou Harris' Mexico affiliate.

Only one-third of Mexico City respondents said they believe Cardenas has done a good job.

Cardenas declined repeated requests for an interview, but he told Milenio magazine that his administration has failed to communicate gains made in the city.

Cardenas' police chiefs say Mexico City is safer than in 1996, pointing to recent declines in murder, rape and car-theft rates. Convictions and firings of nearly 200 corrupt police officers -- and investigations into hundreds more -- also prove things are getting better, they say.

Police also credit a new emergency telephone number, similar to 911 in the United States, with cutting police response time.

But several other numbers do not bode well for Cardenas. The few statistics available for this year show increases in aggravated assaults, assaults on commuters and home burglaries. And critics suspect the murder rate is increasing again. Police said murder statistics for this year aren't available.

Cardenas is far from doomed, however. Favorable crime statistics over the next year may yet vindicate his programs.

And even amid nationwide alarm over crime in this city of at least 10 million, Cardenas remains well ahead of every other candidate except Fox.

By Licona's count, Mexicans hold Cardenas and Fox in much higher regard than any candidate from the PRI -- even Francisco Labastida, Mexico's government minister who is said to be President Ernesto Zedillo's choice as successor.

Cardenas wins votes just for being the son of Mexico's most beloved president, Lazaro Cardenas, who in 1938 wrested control of banks and oil companies from Yankee capitalists.

Most Mexicans believe that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who broke with the PRI in 1987, was robbed of the presidency in a fraud-riddled 1988 election. He lost again in 1994, before winning as mayor in Mexico City in a landslide.

Cardenas is popular among average Mexicans for speaking out against corruption that has long marred the PRI, Rionda said. Average Mexicans also expect Cardenas to protect them from the free-market economic policies now embraced by the PRI that have brought the transfer of state-owned business to private investors.

Still, uncontrollable crime in Mexico City has produced the best wedge yet against Cardenas for opponents like Fox, the likely nominee of the National Action Party.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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