Mexico: So Close To A Vote, So Far From Stability

The elections look close, and that spells trouble down the road

In nearly a decade of observing Mexican elections, political scientist Jose Antonio Crespo has witnessed a lot of monkey business. On one occasion, armed thugs carted off the ballots from a rural precinct in San Luis Potosi. In Yucatan, Crespo saw representatives of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) checking peasants' marked ballots to make sure they voted PRI.

Now, Crespo is worried that electoral shenanigans will mar Mexico's July 2 presidential elections as well--casting doubt on the winner's legitimacy. The latest polls have Francisco Labastida of the PRI and Vincente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) running neck-and-neck, stirring fears that the PRI will try to manipulate rural voters to ensure victory.

Granted, the widespread vote rigging of the past may no longer be possible, thanks to electoral reforms in 1996. For the first time, the presidential vote is being supervised by a completely independent Federal Electoral Institute.

TENSION. But the PRI still has weighty powers to influence the ballot's outcome. "We're already hearing reports of vote-buying and voter coercion," says Crespo, an analyst at the Center of Economic Research & Instruction in Mexico City. Labastida's chief vote-getting strategist, a hard-line former governor named Manuel Bartlett, is barnstorming the country, telling millions of poor Mexicans that they could lose government anti-poverty and farm support payments if they fail to vote for the PRI. "If we don't win with a significant margin, the consequences will be protests and disturbances," Labastida told PRI officials on June 5. The stock market slumped 4.5% and the peso fell 2% the next day.

The tight race--regardless of the outcome--is setting the stage for a period of high tension after the election. If the PRI wins by a margin of 3% or less, Crespo predicts Mexican voters will question the results and even take to the streets to protest against vote-buying. Either the PRI or the PAN may challenge the election in court if the margin of victory is very thin. Even if there is a clear winner, the new President is likely to encounter a recalcitrant Congress once he begins governing next December, as neither the PAN nor the PRI is expected to win a clear majority in congressional elections, also scheduled for July 2.

If Fox manages to win the presidency--ousting the PRI for the first time in 71 years--the consequences could be even greater: Most analysts think the PRI will simply fall apart. The PRI has long been a motley mixture of populists, centrists, and technocrats held together by control of the presidency and a rich web of lifelong patronage opportunities. "If the PRI loses, I think we'll see a lot of defections to other parties," says Jeffrey Weldon, a political scientist at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute. That would open the way for the PAN and other parties to reshape Mexico's political landscape.

The new President is almost certain to have a tough time pushing legislation through the Congress. The PAN, the PRI, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) are expected to split the 500 congressional seats roughly three ways. Over the past decade, the PAN has voted with the PRI on almost every piece of key legislation, including reforms that have transformed the economy.

But the PAN could feel badly burned and withhold its congressional votes if the PRI wins the presidency. A standoff between the executive and legislative branches could stymie important reforms of the tax system and the electricity and petrochemical sectors, which are due to be opened up to badly needed foreign investment. The center-left PRD, which in the past has opposed everything from NAFTA to privatizations, is also likely to block further reforms.

Guiding Mexico through the post-election period will be the last big challenge for President Ernesto Zedillo. His chief goal has been to hand over power without a political or economic crisis for the first time since 1970.

Clearly Zedillo wants the PRI to win. But on election night, it will be up to him to make it clear that he'll pass the baton to the newly-elected president--whether he's from the PRI or not.

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