Fox win shocks, delights Mexico

Surprise victory by upstart ends 71 years of one-party control

July 04, 2000|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY - Luis Garcia couldn't bear to watch the news as the politically unthinkable unfolded here.

A longtime opponent of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled the country for 71 years, Garcia was so used to losing, he couldn't watch the election results.

But at 8 p.m. Sunday he turned back to the news, and what he saw both stunned and thrilled him.

The PRI was going down to defeat, trailing Vicente Fox, presidential candidate of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), by 8 and 10 percentage points.

"I was really surprised that the margin was so wide and the authorities recognized the victory," Garcia said. "I've been waiting for more than 30 years for the PAN to win."

Few people had expected the size of the Fox victory over Francisco Labastida, the PRI candidate.

Polls leading up to Sunday's election had been a cacophony of conflicting predictions. Some showed Fox leading; most showed Labastida ahead. Only two gave Fox the 8 percentage-point margin he ultimately won.

"I think a lot of people were scared to say what they really were going to do," said Luis Rubio, director of CIDAC, a Mexico City think tank.

So it appears that modern Mexico - urban, young and middle-class voters - had a chance to make itself heard in a way that had never been possible before, given the PRI's long history of vote fraud.

Political reforms, particularly to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which became independent of ruling-party control in 1996, had cleansed the country's election system of abuse and fraud. People turned out in large numbers, feeling there was a chance their votes would be counted.

Meanwhile, it appears from preliminary tallies that the entrenched political machine couldn't muster its apparatus when it counted. Or maybe it had just outstayed its welcome.

There seemed to be a rebellion among sectors that the PRI has historically controlled, which have been declining in numbers for many years, anyway. Rural turnout was low. The same was true among older voters. Working-class neighborhoods, another area in which the PRI has long held sway, responded in some states and stayed home in others.

Jesus Alberto Kuk Pech, a beekeeper and honey salesman in Cancun, lives in a neighborhood that has been a PRI stronghold for a long time. But yesterday, Kuk Pech passed a polling place where the posted results showed the vote had been 4-1 in favor of Fox.

Kuk Pech, a Fox supporter, spent yesterday sitting back with the rest of the country to marvel at what had happened.

"I figured these guys would commit fraud again, stealing ballot boxes, and the same old scandal," he said. "But it didn't happen. The elections were clean. It was magnificent.

"We were tired of all this," he said of the PRI's 71-year rule. "In the time they've spent in power, the country hasn't changed. People remain in misery."

Amid all the post-election analysis, one person who emerges a winner is President Ernesto Zedillo. On Dec. 1, he will become the first president in Mexican history to peacefully turn over power to another regime.

He will likely go down in history as the midwife to Mexico's transi-tion to democracy - remarkable for a bookish economist who was thrust unwillingly into power after the murder of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.

He may become one of the few ex-presidents able to walk down the street without being insulted by his compatriots, said Jose Antonio Crespo, a Mexico City political scientist and columnist.

"He supposedly didn't know anything about politics. But that helped," said Crespo. "Since he wasn't looking for power, it didn't cost him much to cede power."

What happens to Zedillo's party is another issue altogether.

Many believe the PRI will simply dissolve. It was created in 1929 to administer power, and many of its members have little loyalty to the party, joining because it allowed them access to political power or government jobs.

"It's no longer the government. It will no longer be an employment agency," said Luis Garcia.

"It's lost its head. It's a muscular body, but without a head," said Crespo. "PRI followers don't know what to do when there's no one to tell them what to do. They'll go to other parties. Or they'll form another party, with different colors."

But Maria Emilia Farias sees another future for the party.

"The PRI won't disappear. It'll have to reform," said Farias, a longtime PRI activist and president of a lobbying firm. "It still has governorships and congressional seats. The PRI has to become a party of urban middle classes. This is our great challenge."

What may be created out of Sunday's remarkable elections is a change in Mexicans, famously cynical and critical when it comes to their government. The election results may actually make them feel as if they have a role to play.

"This is the first time that people will feel that this is a government that they've created and didn't have imposed on them," Crespo. "You feel, `It's my government.' For the first time, there will be the feeling among people of recovering certain political control. That will mark a change in hope and expectations."

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