Presidential Challenger On Stump in Mexico

Contender Cardenas criticizes Salinas administration's economic strategies, but he may have difficulty matching his 1988 showing

A TALL, serious engineer who rocked the Mexican political system in 1988 is back on the campaign stump.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, whom many analysts believe might have won the last presidential election but for rampant fraud, is the 1994 presidential candidate for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). He deftly fields questions tossed by half-a-dozen local businessmen.

"There will be no return to protectionism," Mr. Cardenas says. "You won't see an interventionist state. But instead of imposing environmental standards that force factories to close and put people out of work, the state should be willing to intervene with money and technical help so factories can install anti-contamination devices."

Cardenas seems to know what his audience wants to hear. He ticks off the apparent weaknesses of President Salinas de Gortari's economic reforms. "You know as well as I do, the trade deficit is growing. The peso is overvalued. Economic growth is stagnant. The trade opening is hurting Mexican businessmen.

And the corruption continues," he says. "Working together, we can create an environment where Mexicans have at least the same advantages as foreigners coming here."

The goal is not to meet with just the Cardenas faithful, but to build new alliances. The three-day swing through four cities in central Mexico is part of a plan over the coming months to rekindle ties with various groups not affiliated with the PRD, but which supported Cardenas in the 1988 election. The Queretaro business organization, for example, has not been a supporter. But the meeting, which Cardenas sought, is an indication that he's trying to broaden his appeal, and people seem willing to hear his

message.

"We're moving again with citizens groups to push for change," says Cardenas, a former state governor and son of a popular former Mexican president. "But this time it will be with greater plurality and force than in 1988."

TO back up this strategy of plurality, the PRD decided in their July national convention to open half the space on its ticket to candidates who are not party members.

But analysts say this is more a necessity than a magnanimous gesture. The last time around, Cardenas was backed by a coalition of leftist parties. Since then, he's formed his own party. But the party organization leaves a lot to be desired, and it has some glaring deficiencies in representation and resources.

"In only seven states [of 31] plus the Federal District, can one speak of a consolidated party," notes a recent report on the PRD by El Financiero, a Mexican daily newspaper.

Indeed, since Cardenas shattered the complacency of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1988, the PRD has steadily lost ground in state and local elections. Opposition parties claim the PRI has revitalized its fraudulent political machine. But, officially, the PRD does not hold the governorship of any state or mayorship of any state capital - a significant disadvantage in a country where power is so centralized. The PRI's strength lies only in municipal seats; it holds 90 in 12 states. Its bastion is in Michoacan (the state Cardenas governed) where it has 42 of 113 mayorships, but even there the numbers have slipped.

The political atmosphere today is different from 1988. Cardenas represented a change from a decade of debt-induced economic crisis. Salinas has ushered in five years of economic growth, falling inflation, and sweeping economic reforms. He sagely instituted Solidarity, a multibillion-dollar, antipoverty public works program targeted most directly at the poorest states where Cardenas' political support is strongest.

Cardenas knows that many indicators are unfavorable for a comeback. But he brushes them off. "If you look at the trends in 1988, they were worse than they are now. Official polls showed we would never get more than 9 percent of the vote."

The recent election of former PRI stalwart, Sen. Porfirio Munoz Ledo as PRD party president is seen as fortifying the party by taking some of the burden off Cardenas.

"His exceptional intelligence is only surpassed by his egomania; he has an enormous capacity for work; an exceptional supply of histrionics; a talent for phrases which hit and hurt (he knows the PRI from the inside out)," says a recent report by Grupo Consultor Interdisciplinario, a Mexico City political consulting group.

If Senator Munoz Ledo and Cardenas are to succeed, analysts say they must reach those who have not benefited from the Salinas economic recovery - those who feel the promises of the democratic reform are empty. They must consolidate the discontent that gave the Mexican left their biggest victory in decades.

The Cardenas message seems designed to stroke the chords of discontent and allay the concerns of foreign investors.

He calls corruption "at the highest levels of government one of our country's most serious problems." He vows to set up an office to investigate foreign investors' claims of extortion.

On moves toward democratic reforms, Cardenas says "the reforms mean nothing unless they produce a trustworthy electoral roll and an authority that conducts clean elections."

As local media report continuing layoffs from state enterprises being sold off or privatized, Cardenas says Salinas policies have "increased the misery of millions while concentrating the wealth in the hands of a shrinking group of people."

Although no fan of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Cardenas says with or without NAFTA, the Mexican economy has already opened to foreign trade.

"The investment being attracted is positive." But he criticizes government policies that he claims draw money into the stock market rather than into "creating more factories and jobs," he says.

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