MEXICO CITY — IF the polls are to be believed, Mexico's next president will be Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled since 1929.
A handful of nationwide polls released in the past week show Mr. Zedillo with a commanding lead, ranging from 16 to 28 percentage points going into the Aug. 21 election. The polls put the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos in second place and the center-left candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) a distant third.
But if the figures stand up on election day, Zedillo will be elected by the smallest margin in Mexican history.
Although Mexico's current President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made sweeping economic reforms, including ushering in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the benefits have not been felt by the majority of Mexicans. Eighty-three percent of those polled by the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma say the economy is the same or worse.
The revolt of the indigenous poor in Chiapas, kidnappings of prominent businessmen, and the assassination of the original PRI candidate have heightened fears of personal safety and political instability. Mexicans rate the PRI poorly on improving security over the last three years. Pollution, poverty, and corruption have worsened, according to a poll conducted jointly by the United States firm Beldon & Russonello and the Mexican company Ciencia Aplicada.
So why is the PRI expected to win this election?
One answer is summed up in a phrase voiced here with increasing frequency: ``Mas vale malo por conocido que bueno por conocer.'' The rough equivalent in English is: ``Better the devil you know than the one you don't.''
It has been 65 years since anyone here has seen another party govern. PRI dominance from the local to the federal level has been so complete for so long that many Mexicans doubt the capacity of opposition candidates - with no experience at the helm - to govern.
``Zedillo's lead seems to rely on a lack of enthusiasm for alternatives,'' says Nancy Beldon of Beldon & Russonello. ``People see the problems and their situation getting worse, but there's little faith in the opposition parties to solve them. It's a case of the other parties losing it rather than the PRI winning the election.''
Polls may not be accurate
Although pollsters believe they have the trend right, Ms. Beldon and others admit that their polls in Mexico may not be as accurate as polls taken in the United States. Mexicans may not be telling pollsters what they really think for fear of reprisals.
About half the Mexican population lives in poverty, mostly in the countryside. Many poor, uneducated Mexicans rely on the government (that is, the PRI) for farm loans, credit, basic infrastructure, food, and education subsidies. There may be concern that if they vote against the PRI, they endanger their economic well-being.
Fifty-six percent of the 1,500 people polled nationwide by Beldon said they don't believe the Mexican people feel free to say what they think about politics and government or are afraid to say what they think. ``That,'' says Beldon, ``could color everything.''
Also, the lack of reliable voting records from previous elections - due to alleged fraud - means pollsters have no solid database reference. ``We don't know what happened in the lcurrent ast elections [in 1988]. We don't have a final vote. This really is a problem for us,'' says Beldon, who would normally check poll results against voting records to see if support is changing and to test for flaws in polling methods.
Undecided vote may be key
The other wild card is the undecided vote, which ranges from 19 to 25 percent in five different nationwide polls. ``This vote could produce an important change in the electoral scenario,'' wrote the Reforma newspaper.
``It's a difficult decision,'' says Jose Luis Munoz, a Mexico City taxi driver, as he weighs the pros and cons of voting for the PRI.
``The PRI has all the money. Big business is behind it. If the PRI loses, the economy goes down the drain. Who knows what the other parties would do with the economy. On the other hand, if the PRI wins, that could start up the civil war in Chiapas again. It's a difficult decision.''
Vicente Licona, general manager of Indemerc-Louis Harris Mexico, a Mexican pollster affiliated with the well-known US polling firm, says the two main opposition parties - the PAN and PRD - have been gaining momentum in recent weeks. The tendency, he says, and other pollsters agree, is for the ``undecideds'' to favor the PAN.
But even if all undecided votes went to the PAN (an unlikely scenario, pollsters say), it probably wouldn't be enough to overcome the apparent PRI advantage. ``The PRI lead is so convincing it looks like it would take a large turn of events to see anybody else come up and get ahead,'' Beldon says.