An election that can change a regime

Mexicans to choose a leader and future at Sunday's polls

June 30, 2000|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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