Mexico Braces For The Unthinkable: A Fair Election

Sixty farmers, including a half-dozen ninetysomething veterans of the Mexican Revolution, gathered in a dusty peanut warehouse in rural Xoxocotla. They came to hear leftist presidential candidate Cuauht moc C rdenas promise to reverse the 1991 agrarian reform that threatens to allow big landowners to buy the small farmers out. "Was it worth it to spill blood in Emiliano Zapata's great revolutionary battles, if our families' land is unprotected today?" asked sugarcane grower Tito Jaramillo Vazquez.

Mexico's presidential campaign is heating up. Already, a half-dozen Cabinet ministers are openly jockeying to be tapped by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari as the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Aug. 20, 1994 vote. The papers are full of stories and cartoons handicapping the race. Meanwhile, an economic slowdown, rising unemployment, and the possibility that the North American Free Trade Agreement may be shot down by the U.S. Congress are giving opposition politicians hope that they can challenge the PRI's 64-year grip on power.

The PRI has dominated through money, patronage, and fraud, but this campaign promises to be dramatically different. Under intense pressure from home and abroad to make Mexico more democratic, Salinas has proposed major reforms that could alter the equation of power. If accepted, the changes, which include an independent tribunal to verify election results, would open the door just a crack to the unthinkable: an opposition victory.

The chances of an upset remain slim. While PRI candidates can barnstorm in a party jet and dominate the airwaves, C rdenas tours in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, hopping a commercial flight only when necessary. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) spent just $1.2 million on the 1988 race and will be lucky to raise $5 million next year. By contrast, the PRI is pushing for a spending ceiling of $206 million--way more than the Democrats or Republicans spent in the last U.S. Presidential election.

Still, election reformers are fast growing in strength. Many Mexicans became outraged after the controversial 1988 vote, when election officials awarded Salinas 50.4% of the vote and refused to allow a recount. The anger was channeled into groups such as the National Accord for Democracy (ACUDE), which has monitored every local and state contest since 1990, forcing the government to cancel the results of three gubernatorial elections. Recently, 20 citizens' groups agreed to team up to monitor the presidential vote with the help of foreign observers.

NAFTA FACTOR. The prospect of a tough fight gives the PRI's choice far more importance than in the past. The situation has boosted the fortunes of two PRI stalwarts: the populist Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho and Social Development & Environment Secretary Luis Donaldo Colosio. While Camacho has the most appeal among opposition voters, Colosio, a former PRI head, is favored by party regulars who fear Salinas is frittering away their power. Finance Secretary Pedro Aspe remains a contender, but he has hurt his cause with insensitive remarks, such as a recent quip dismissing complaints about unemployment. But if NAFTA falls through, Salinas may anoint Aspe to make sure Mexico sticks to its hard-won economic reforms.

At C rdenas' rally in the sweltering countryside, the farmers were clearly looking forward to a chance at change. "I don't like what this government has done. It hasn't helped people like me, who fought alongside Zapata to change this country," says 93-year-old Estanislao Tapia. Perhaps this time around the elections will provide an accurate reading of just how many Mexicans feel the same way.

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