71 years of rule at risk in Mexico

At Tuesday's presidential debate, an underdog shows up the establishment pick.

One measure of just how conservative a country Mexico is: The same party has been in power for 71 years. That's longer than any regime in power anywhere in the world.

One measure of how Mexico is changing: News organizations, and primarily the electronic media, are for the first time dedicating more air time to the principal opposition presidential candidate - a guy with a penchant for Texas-size belt buckles and cowboy boots - than to the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The most hotly contested race in modern Mexico's history is now entering the final stages. On July 2, voters will resolve this tension between traditional political conservatism and a desire for democratic change.

A 90-minute debate among the six presidential candidates Tuesday night put Mexico's hesitation between momentous political change and a safer status quo in the spotlight. Based on the debate and recent polls, the momentum now favors Vincente Fox, a social conservative and brash former Coca-Cola executive.

In a country where 40 million people live in poverty and where corruption, drug trafficking, and violence are seen as having gone from bad to worse since the last presidential election six years ago, talking "change" is a safe bet for any candidate. But the candidates present different visions of just what change Mexico needs.

PRI candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa, a four-decade member of the PRI, a former governor and interior secretary, spoke Tuesday of "change with security" and "a change that allows us to preserve the best of what we have achieved ... above all social peace." He put himself at the forefront of "building a new PRI."

Mr. Fox, a former governor for the center-right National Action Party, spoke more bluntly of the need for political "alternation" to permit a "plural and inclusive" Mexico. "We are before a historic opportunity," he said, "in the next 70 days we can end 70 years of bad government."

Going into the debate, most polls showed Fox within striking distance of Mr. Labastida - some even putting him within the margin of error - at around 40 percent. In a distant third, hovering around 12 percent, is longtime left-wing standard bearer Cuauhtemoc Crdenas, former mayor of Mexico City and in his third run at the presidency. (Most Mexicans believe he actually won the fraud-rife 1988 contest). The other three candidates together generally roust less than 5 percent of intended votes.

The debate may have allowed Fox to pull ahead of Labastida - at least for now. Of six quick polls taken immediately after the debate, five showed the public generally considered Fox the winner. Yet while it remains unclear just how decisive one 90-minute debate among six candidates can be in influencing voters' final intentions, the unprecedented closeness of the race heightened public interest and had analysts watching for gaffes or "goals" that might deliver an elusive "bump" in the polls.

"With the front-runners so close, there's a potential for tipping the balance in this race," says Delal Baer, a Mexico specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The quandary in Mexico between a known (although widely reviled) source of stability and ending the PRI's seven-decade hold on power showcases the "warring souls in the Mexican psyche," Ms. Baer says. "You see this in the 40-40 split" between Labastida and Fox, she adds.

What the debate revealed was two leading candidates, each trying to boost his numbers by becoming a little more like the other. Labastida was combative, using time that was supposed to be dedicated to political, economic, and social issues to attack Fox on his record as governor of Guanajuato state. He came off as more feisty than his normally gray demeanor suggests.

Fox chose the stance of the trustworthy statesman, speaking of Mexico's splintered opposition as one and seeking to allay fears of instability in change by emphasizing the need to "land softly with this transition." He responded to some of Labastida's attacks calmly and simply ignored others.

Labastida claimed his rival had spent 40 percent of his time time as governor of Guanajuato travelling to places like Washington, Paris, and Singapore. Fox responded that those trips landed more than 200 new companies for the state and 240,000 new jobs during his tenure. He compared that to the 60,000 new jobs he said were created in Sinaloa during Labastida's governorship.

Attempting to cast doubt on Fox's new seriousness, Labastida then offered a list of the put-downs Fox has recently used in public to describe him - including "shrimp." But the normally cowboy-booted Fox - who uses a belt buckle the size of Texas that says "FOX" to hold up his jeans - stood by in his conservative dark suit and let the jab alone.

Some analysts had suggested before the debate that the event might give Mr. Crdenas the opportunity to transform the contest into a three-way race. After the recent victories of left-of-center presidential candidates in other Latin countries like Argentina and Chile, Mexico is seen as another place where frustration with the regional market-oriented economic model could boost a left-leaning candidate.

But others say the third time won't be any charm for the dour Crdenas. "In Mexico you encounter the same rejection of that severe model as elsewhere in Latin America, but you don't find the confidence in Crdenas to change that as you once did," says Patricia Olamendi, a former official in Crdenas's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). "He hasn't convinced [people] that he is a capable leader."

And Fox has been able to convince voters that he is "a little" to the left, says Ms. Olamendi, who predicts that one or more of the opposition candidates will fall behind Fox as the coming weeks reveal a definite two-man contest.

Those final weeks will also gauge how ready Mexico is for the kind of historic change Mexicans may want.

"I think we're ready this time," says Angel Navarrete, an oil-rig subcontractor in Villahermosa, Mexico. "A lot of people were frightened at the idea of a PRD victory before, but that fear is not so strong with Fox."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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