MEXICO CITY — CHANTING ``Death to the PRI,'' about 15,000 frustrated followers of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) gathered in the huge central plaza of this ancient Aztec city to protest allegedly massive electoral fraud.
``The fight isn't over yet. If they won't count us at the ballot box, they'll have to count us one by one in the plazas,'' shouted the PRD presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, who finished a distant third in the Aug. 21 election. He then invited the relatively small, sun-baked crowd back for another demonstration on Aug. 27.
Mexico's post-electoral posturing has begun.
The threat of civil unrest and violence brought on by vote-rigging has been hanging over the Mexican elections for months. Though many steps have been taken by the government to bolster confidence in the electoral system, two sources of potential instability remain unconvinced: the PRD and the Mayan Indians who launched a January revolt in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.
Most doubt the PRD can mount demonstrations large enough to force the government to reconsider the election results. In second place, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos also complained of an ``electoral process that was profoundly inequitable and profoundly unjust.'' But Mr. Fernandez is not challenging the results or mounting street protests.
If the low turnout at the Aug. 22 rally is any indication, the PRD's plan for other post-election protests may flop. ``They're not going to achieve the numbers they had in 1988. These were very clean elections. It's a different political climate now,'' says Arturo Sanchez, political analyst at the Mexican Institute for Political Studies here.
In 1988, when Mr. Cardenas officially came in second, more than 100,000 angry citizens gathered in the central plaza to protest the mysterious crash of the vote-tallying system on election night. Many Mexicans believe Cardenas was the real winner of the 1988 presidential election.
This time around, Cardenas received only about 16 percent of the official vote count. But Cardenas argues that the fraud was so ``enormous'' that ``we don't know who won or lost these elections.''
The PRD, justifiably distrustful of government claims that these are the ``cleanest elections in Mexican history,'' has been building a case for weeks now that the elections were being rigged. In an Aug. 22 press conference, Cardenas continued the campaign, citing four unmet requisites for credible elections:
* Impartial electoral authorities. Top officials of the Federal Electoral Institute have ties to the ruling party.
* A trustworthy voter list. The PRD claims about 17 percent of the voters (mostly opposition loyalists, they claim) were ``shaved'' from the list so they could not vote Aug. 21.
* Equal access to funding and the media. The ruling party spent an estimated 10 times as much as the PRD on its campaign. Independent studies showed a strong media bias favoring the incumbent party.
* An independent judicial authority. Only 1 case out of 250 on file with the newly appointed electoral prosecutor has resulted in an indictment of a PRI official.
Domestic and foreign poll watchers, in their first role in Mexican elections, are reaching mixed conclusions about whether fraud was committed Aug. 21.
``I haven't seen anything, any technical aspects of this election which would skew it or have a significant impact on [the result],'' US Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told reporters here.
``Massive fraud? Not on election day. But you have to view the vote within a larger context,'' says Bruce Kiernan, a former director of Helsinki Watch, a human rights group. ``This is an authoritarian state, which has rigged elections before, and this time there was manipulation of the press, unfair campaign financing, vote buying, and intimidation.''
Sergio Aguayo, director of Civic Alliance, is still tabulating the results of 20,000 Mexican observers in his group. ``The quality of the election is in question,'' he says, but he won't pass judgment yet. ``We all have anecdotes. Now we must see if the anecdotes result in trends.''
MEANWHILE, the state of Chiapas remains another potential post-electoral flash point. The Mayan rebels, known as Zapatistas, have kept a promised cease-fire since January. But the Zapatistas vowed to return to guerrilla warfare if the elections were fraudulent.
Adding to the Chiapas powder keg are PRD charges that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party rigged the governor's race there. The early returns show the PRI candidate getting 48 percent of the vote, and the PRD with 31 percent. ``We will take power, the only question is how,'' said the PRD governor candidate's wife, Conchita Villafuente.
Back in Mexico City, during a victory party thrown in the parking lot of the PRI national headquarters, local party chief Salvador Damian Torres shouted over the live mariachi band: ``Some opposition parties don't know how to lose. If they don't win, everything is bad, everything is fraudulent.''