Finally Free to Vote for a Mayor, Mexico City May Elect a Gadfly

Left-leaning Crdenas is free of the scandals and economic crises that have plagued the ruling party

Gesturing to the east, toward the volcano Popocatpet that has been grumbling and spitting ash for the past few weeks, Ricardo Ledesma says, "The voters are like El Popo. We're angry." The Mexico City tile-layer adds, "And when we enter the voting booth, we're going to show it."

Talk to Mexico City residents on the street, at a taco stand, in a taxi, or at the market, and it's striking how many of them say the same thing: They want an end to the political system that has run Mexico for nearly 70 years; they want a fairer economy; they want an end to corruption; and they want their sprawling city to serve as an example and lead Mexico down this path of change.

Unless something unforeseen happens before July 6, when they vote for the first time in seven decades for mayor of their city, they want the left-leaning government critic Cuauhtmoc Crdenas to stand at the helm of their ship. The mayor previously had been appointed Mexico's president.

The son of former President Lzaro Crdenas, who nationalized Mexico's oil industry in 1938, Mr. Crdenas seems almost certain to become mayor of the capital city. Analysts say that's because he best represents the anger of residents over the country's recent deep economic recession. Many of them want nothing to do with his opponent's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has governed Mexico for nearly 70 years.

Ever since Crdenas lost the race for president of Mexico to Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988, he has been a strong and visible critic of market economic reforms that handsomely benefited a small, PRI-affiliated elite. That criticism became more attractive after Mexico suffered its worst economic crisis in 60 years in 1995-96.

Because many observers maintain that Crdenas actually won in 1988 but had his victory stolen through PRI dirty tricks, his experience is a reminder for many Mexicans of the pervasive corruption they want to end.

"Crdenas represents the effect of this corrupt system," says Joel Estudillo, director of the Mexican Institute for Political Studies in Mexico City. "Voting for him is a form of revenge against the Salinas project."

Mr. Salinas left office in December 1994 enjoying high popularity. But the ensuing economic crisis and now-surfacing scandals allegedly involving the Salinas family have made the former president widely reviled among Mexicans. Being seen as Salinas's longtime nemesis has allowed Crdenas to hold a moral high ground throughout the campaign. Not even questioning of his personal wealth has dented his front-runner status, leading some analysts to dub him "the Teflon candidate."

"Some people see this vote as an opportunity to vote against, or express their fury toward, Salinas de Gortari," says Srgio Hernndez Garduo, a Mexico City medical-supplies salesman. "But for most of us, these elections are above all a chance to finish with the bad government and one-party rule of the PRI."

SIX months ago it was assumed the center-right National Action Party (PAN) would easily win Mexico's City's mayoral seat, a high-profile post that has been a presidential appointment for as long as the PRI has reigned. But the Crdenas candidacy changed that - as did the fact that PAN candidate Carlos Castillo Peraza failed to light any fires with the public. PRI candidate Alfredo Del Mazo hasn't fared any better.

What remains unchanged is that, while polls showed voters switching their preference from the PAN to Crdenas's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the shift has left the once-unchallenged PRI just as far out in the cold. "What this election says is that we've finally lost the fear we once felt about voting for something other than the PRI," Mr. Hernandez says. "We're learning a new political culture that says, 'Anybody but the PRI.' "

National polls also show that the Crdenas campaign in Mexico City is having a coattail effect, boosting the PRD's popularity across the country.

With Crdenas's election looking all but certain, interest has shifted to analyzing what impact that victory will have. And many observers contend the effect will be largely positive - even for Mexico's PRI government.

"This is going to give a sense of certainty to [Mexico's] democratization process," Mr. Estudillo says. "This will signify that the PRI is no longer synonymous with government but finally one political party among many parties." This will be beneficial even to President Ernesto Zedillo and his PRI government, since it will be proof of Mexico's plurality and make questioning Mexico's democratic credentials more difficult.

Crdenas's PRD has moderated its most radical positions over the past year. He has not called for renationalizing, but put the brakes on further privatization, especially the oil-and- gas industry. Some observers warn that the left-wing party could scare off international investors.

But others say Mexico's political calendar will be a moderating force. "One important date is going to hold down conflict," says Alberto Arnaut, a Mexico City political scientist, "and that's 2000" - when Crdenas, Mr. Arnaut is convinced, wants to try again for the presidency.

What if by then Crdenas has proved to be a disappointment to his constituents? "Then we'll vote for someone else," salesman Hernandez says. "This election is about learning that we do have options."

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