Mexico: Will It Vote For Change?

Why the long-ruling PRI may finally fall

The men were in the fields tending their crops, but three dozen women and children gathered one recent morning in Poblado de Jicolapa, a tiny hamlet in the Mexican state of Puebla, to hear German Villalba speak. The 33-year-old businessman-turned-politician is running for Congress under the banner of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). It's an uphill fight for this opposition politician, a foot soldier in the fight to oust the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But Villalba, armed with a loudspeaker and boxes of posters, pamphlets, and T-shirts, was making a valiant effort. "How can the PRI say it cares about you, the poor, if it only remembers you with small handouts when there's an election?" he asked his small audience. "Where is the PRI now, when you need help?"

Villalba's words struck a chord with Rosa Moreno. Three months ago, the PRI-controlled state government shut down the town's one-room clinic and carted away its equipment. "They heard that some of us, including the nurse, were supporting the opposition party, so they removed her and closed the clinic," says Moreno. Now, this mother of five, along with the rest of the hamlet's 300 residents, must trek an hour on foot to reach the nearest medical center.

From Mexico's small rural villages to its big cities, a fierce battle is being waged for the loyalties of the country's 58.8 million registered voters. On July 2, Mexicans will head to the polls to choose their next president, 628 members of Congress, and three governors. Thanks to electoral reforms that have leveled the playing field and narrowed the margin for fraud, this contest will likely be the cleanest in Mexico's history. It will also be the hardest fought: Opinion polls show PRI presidential hopeful Francisco Labastida running neck-and-neck with PAN rival Vicente Fox, each with about 40% of the vote. An additional 15% or so back Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. Thus, a majority of Mexicans will probably cast their votes for opposition candidates.

The election is shattering all the old certainties of Mexican politics. For the U.S., Mexico's largest trading partner, biggest investor, and often resented Big Brother, this new era could usher in cleaner government in Mexico City, which would be welcome. But postelectoral turmoil could create political instability, which the country has largely avoided since the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s.

Mexicans themselves know they are navigating uncharted waters. For the first time in 71 years, the PRI faces a real chance of losing the presidency. Until recently, that prospect would have been unthinkable. Most Mexicans have no memory of life without the PRI. Any opponents who emerged over the years stood little chance against the party's formidable electoral machine, which was built on patronage and coercion. The party's red, green, and white logo is easily--and quite intentionally--confused with the Mexican flag. Little wonder, then, that many Mexicans still cannot imagine a government run by any party other than the PRI.

Yet even though the PRI has kept its grip on the presidency, the country has been changing steadily--in its economy, its demographics, and its psychology (table). Compared with just 15 years ago, today's voters are on average more urban, more educated, and better informed. And thanks to a battery of economic reforms, Mexico is more open than ever--not only to foreign trade and investment but also to ideas. That has fostered a growing appreciation of the benefits of democracy and the need for accountable government. "We are beginning to see the emergence of a more combative, sophisticated electorate," says political scientist Denise Dresser. "They're not going to put up with business as usual."

SERIAL CRISES. Mexico's voters, one-third of whom are under age 35, are ready to seek alternatives. True, for decades the PRI has delivered political stability. And right now the country is enjoying its fifth consecutive year of solid economic growth. That would sound like a formula for easy victory for the PRI's Labastida. But the PRI has also triggered one huge crisis after another--from the debt default of 1982 to the peso crash of 1994. Also, many Mexicans have not forgotten the election of 1988, when Carlos Salinas landed the presidency in a contest marred by fraud.

The resentment that has been steadily building has fueled a string of opposition successes in the past decade. The PAN and the PRD now rule 11 of Mexico's 32 states. They also control the lower house of Congress. Still, many believe the country's slow transition from authoritarian rule to a competitive democracy will not be complete until the PRI loses the all-important presidency. "A change in government is the best antidote to corruption, which in Mexico has reached intolerable levels," says the PAN's Fox.

It may not even happen this time around. The PRI remains powerful, particularly in the countryside, which is home to one-quarter of Mexico's electorate. There, mostly indigenous peasants depend on government handouts--including food, agricultural subsidies, and welfare payments--for survival. Plus, in the poorest states, local party bosses have been plying farmers with gifts, including bicycles and sewing machines, as is the tradition in an election year.

That means that even in this election, most rural constituencies will probably vote PRI. The party already has the backing of Peasants' Torch, a 26-year-old political action group that claims 800,000 members nationwide. Omar Carreon, one of the group's leaders, argues that the PRD is too wedded to statist policies that don't fit into today's global economy while the PAN has never represented the interests of the poor. "The PRI is still the better option for us," he says. That may not sound like a rousing endorsement, but Carreon, 49, like many Mexicans, believes it's best to play it safe. "Switching the party in power doesn't mean things will get any better, and they could get worse," he says.

Still, there's a groundswell of opposition to the PRI in city and countryside alike. And for the first time, there's a good chance votes will be counted fairly. Mexico's newly independent Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), has spent close to $1 billion in the past six years to compile an accurate list of voters and produce state-of-the-art voter ID cards, complete with photos and tamper-proof holograms. The IFE also monitors campaign spending and media coverage of candidates to make sure it is equitable.

"THREATENING." Coercive tactics can, of course, still be applied long before voters enter the booths. In Poblado de Jicolapa, Celia Cortes, 43 and pregnant with her fourth child, says she has been unable to qualify for school and food vouchers because she isn't a PRI sympathizer. "And they keep threatening us that if we don't support the PRI in this election, we'll lose our agricultural support payments and we won't get the other aid we need," she frets. The independent election watchdog Civic Alliance says PRI officials have forced as many as 3.5 million people, many of them government bureaucrats or members of PRI-affiliated labor unions, to hand over their voter ID cards until the day of the election. When questioned by Business Week about the allegations of voter intimidation, Labastida bristled and said: "That's an absolute, total lie."

There's a significant influence from North America at work in the countryside as well. In Los Haro, a dust-swept village in Zacatecas state, Rosa Maria de Haro says she is fed up with the PRI. She and her husband, Jose Angel Cevallos, 42, run a small general store in the town, which has a population of 2,200 but is virtually devoid of men. That's because upwards of 500 of Los Haro's able-bodied males are currently in the U.S., most working in California vineyards. They are among the estimated 9 million Mexicans living in the U.S.--about half of them illegally.

These migrants are a potent force for change. Although they are not allowed to vote by absentee ballot, many urge their relatives back in Mexico to vote for the opposition, blaming the PRI for the lack of job opportunities that forced them to go north of the border.

What's more, living in the U.S., despite all the hardship, gives those Mexicans a view of a working democracy, where parties are routinely thrown out of office and where corruption, though present, is not endemic. Such is the case of Jose Angel Cevallos, who once worked illegally in the U.S. as a gardener and carpenter. Now, his wife says they both find it hard to swallow the corruption in Mexico. "I always voted for the PRI, and I thought President Salinas did a lot of good things. But in the end he let the people down by stealing all that money," Rosa Maria says, referring to the more than $100 million found in overseas bank accounts in Salinas' brother's name. So this time around, the couple is casting their lot with the PRD's Cardenas.

Mexicans' desire for change is even more palpable in the cities, where higher wages, education, and access to the increasingly independent media encourage ordinary citizens to contemplate alternatives to the PRI. Nearly three-quarters of the country's population is now urban. And according to Alejandro Moreno, a pollster with the Mexican daily Reforma, among city dwellers under the age of 50 and with more than a sixth-grade education, the preference for the opposition is more than 2 to 1.

Anti-PRI sentiment is particularly strong among young Mexicans. "The PRI is corrupt, false, with no real ideas of its own," says Ricardo Orozco, a 28-year-old hydraulics engineer who lives in Mexico City. Orozco plans to vote for the opposition, possibly Cardenas, but worries that if the PRI loses, it may resist turning over the presidency to another party. "Switching the government from one party to another could be very dangerous," he says. "But it's necessary to try, or else we'll be stuck forever in this archaic system."

The PRI, of course, still has pull among a portion of the urban middle class. According to election watchdog groups, some of Mexico's 3 million public servants have been warned they could lose their jobs, suffer pay cuts, or miss out on promotions if they do not support the PRI. An executive at state-run oil monopoly Pemex recently complained publicly that his bosses were pressuring him to lobby co-workers to vote for Labastida.

Many members of Mexico's business elite still openly back the PRI. But a number of them are quietly contributing to Fox's campaign by, for instance, lending him a black Lear Jet and a chartered 727 to take the candidate and dozens of journalists on a cross-country campaign swing in mid-June. Executives at small and midsize companies are not so coy. Tired of the PRI's coddling of big business and its often inept handling of the economy, they are speaking out against the long-ruling party. Mayra Ortega, 39, was the CEO of a bank factoring company in 1995 and saw thousands of companies go belly-up when interest rates shot past 100% in the aftermath of the peso devaluation. Now, Ortega, who these days runs her family's air-purifier company, says she won't vote for a party that has wrecked the economy four times in 25 years. "Mexico is like a big corporation that has been badly run for many years," she says. "What do you do when that happens? You get rid of the CEO and the entire executive committee and you put in new management, period."

The PRI's leaders know their jobs are at stake. But the party does know how to reinvent itself, and may yet again. Last year it broke with the age-old tradition of having the sitting President handpick his successor and staged its first primary ever. Labastida, who served as Interior Minister in the current administration, belongs to the PRI's reformist wing. Yet he cannot afford to alienate the party's hidebound old guard. These "dinosaurs" have their hands firmly on the levers of the party's powerful electoral machine. If they succeed in getting Labastida elected, his pledge to create a new, corruption-free PRI may be thwarted.

CAN-DO MESSAGE. In contrast, the coalition backing Fox--made up of the PAN and the smaller Green Party--is new and untested. Still, the onetime Coca-Cola executive and former governor of Guanajuato is doing a fine job of peeling supporters away from his rivals. Numerous PRD militants who've decided that Cardenas has no chance of winning have joined the Fox campaign in the past few months. So have some prominent Priistas. And in recent weeks, Fox also has gotten a lift from his convincing performance in televised presidential debates and from strong turnouts at his rallies. The candidate's can-do message--that Mexico has the potential to be a great, modern nation if it just throws off the yoke of the PRI, rolls up its sleeves, and gets to work--clearly appeals to many voters.

Yet even if Fox is elected, Mexico's revolution will be far from over. Leading a country where most bureaucrats and two-thirds of governors hail from the PRI will no doubt be difficult, since the party is unlikely to behave graciously in defeat. And if Fox attempts to make good on his pledge to wipe out corruption, he is certain to make powerful enemies. If Labastida wins, meanwhile, he will owe all manner of favors to the PRI's old-style politicos, who have opposed many of the economic reforms the technocrats have pushed through over the past decade. Defections, and eventually an outright split, might ensue.

As election day approaches, Mexicans have much to ponder. After nearly a century of PRI rule, are they ready to give another party a try? Perhaps. In Poblado de Jicolapa, a pig wanders by as PAN congressional candidate Villalba is making his pitch. "The PRI," Villalba says, "is like a pig that used to be skinny. For years and years, each one of us has been tossing a corncob or two to the pig, and now it's very fat. But we're not going to do that anymore, are we?" The women laugh appreciatively. As they walk back to their simple adobe homes, they carry PAN posters that they will tape to their windows.

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