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As hundreds of ruling-party dissidents recently marched into the colossal plaza at the heart of Mexico City, Eugenia S'anchez stood off to one side, silently soaking in the scene. The schoolteacher was struck by the demands of the so-called Democratic Current, a rare splinter group of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that is calling for a more open presidential selection process.

``We can no longer accept the dedazo,'' said Mrs. S'anchez, bitterly referring to the method incumbent presidents traditionally use to pick their successors - simply pointing their ``big finger.'' Although Mexicans vote in a presidential election every six years, with each party sponsoring a candidate, the PRI has been so dominant for decades that the president is virtually chosen by his predecessor.

As with many members of Mexico's ample middle class, five years of economic crisis have made S'anchez increasingly resentful of the country's closed political system.

``Mexico is too advanced to be controlled by such an ancient form of authoritarianism,'' she added. ``It just shows that the government doesn't care about what the people think.''

But for all her heated words, S'anchez still stands on the sidelines. For all of her hope that this month's unveiling of the PRI's 1988 presidential candidate marks the end of an era, she declines to protest. And in this, she embodies the ambivalence of Mexican politics.

According to interviews with a wide range of political experts, economic analysts, and people on the street, Mexicans' faith in their political system continues to fall. But while pressure on the system mounts from all sides, no group seems well-enough organized or mobilized to provoke major changes.

The discontented keep quiet, these observers say, because their economic survival often depends on the PRI and the status quo. Indeed, Mrs. S'anchez later concedes the main reason for her cautiousness: She doesn't want to jeopardize her husband's position in the state-run oil monopoly or her job in the public schools.

Neither full democracy nor revolution looms on the horizon. Political change is inevitable, analysts say, because of the transformation of Mexico's demographic and economic landscapes; but it will be slow, reluctant. Indeed, the hot issue today is not full-scale democracy, but the gradual opening of the process within the PRI of choosing presidential candidates.

The naming of the PRI candidate - expected any day now - is part of the crowning act of Mexican politics, the presidential succession. Regarded as an inevitable victor in next July's elections, the candidate becomes a part of Mexico's patronage system: He determines the fate of tens of thousands of government workers, ranging from high-level Cabinet members to rookie police officers.

But the succession means much more than that. Mexico's long history of peaceful transitions of power - unique in Latin America - has also served to legitimize and renew the political system.

As PRI leaders gathered here last Tuesday to release their party platform, however, it seemed unlikely that they could alter the three basic developments that have created a crisis of legitimacy, a crack in Mexico's pyramid of power:

The erosion of living standards. Even as Mexico's external sector is staging a modest recovery, the economic crisis that began with the 1982 financial collapse still burdens most Mexicans.

The changing demographic landscape. As the exodus from the countryside to the cities continues, the average Mexican is becoming younger, better educated, and less tolerant of the government's authoritarian role.

Government isolation from the people. The Cabinet is increasingly dominated by foreign-educated technocrats, few of whom have held an elected post. The result, political analysts and others say, has been sound economic policies with little popular appeal and efficient political processes with little relevance to the daily lives of most Mexicans.

Recent economic news coming out of Mexico has been largely encouraging. By strictly maintaining its austere economic policies, the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado has managed to pile up $15 billion in reserves. Oil revenues have jumped 40 percent over the last year. And the Mexican stock market has bolted upward so fast it has made Wall Street's market look like a sleeping bull, financial analysts say.

But the average Mexican sees no light at the end of the tunnel. ``Every day life is more difficult for us,'' says Mar'ia de los Angeles Corral, a typographer interviewed in front of her dimly lit shop. ``We already have to work Saturdays and Sundays just to survive. If we want to eat meat every day in this country, we would have to rob, we would have to kill.''

Half of all Mexican workers are less fortunate than Mrs. de los Angeles: They either have no job or earn less than the 40-cent-an-hour minimum wage. For those who do have steady work, pay raises lag behind the country's 134 percent annual inflation. Since the crisis began, in fact, workers' earning power has dropped nearly 50 percent.

Mexico's economic difficulties have also curtailed presidencialismo - the unbridled power usually wielded by the President - which retained legitimacy largely because of the plentiful resources the government could distribute. When oil prices fell and the debt ballooned in 1982, the government was left in shock. Suddenly, after 40 years of 6 percent growth, it no longer had the resources to satisfy its people. Public works, subsidies, and rising wages had to be cut back.

``The economic crisis is the origin of the incapacity of presidencialismo to function like before,'' says Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist at the Colegio de M'ejico. ``The consensus in Mexico was forged out of the capacity of the system to provide high economic growth between 1940 and 1981. That was the real source of legitimacy, not political democracy.''

But political frustration flared up long before 1982. In 1968, when there was no economic crisis, students erupted in protest against government authoritarianism. Two weeks before the city hosted the 1968 Olympics, hundreds of unarmed middle-class protesters were massacred in a city plaza. The repression scared the opposition into silence; its memory remains a strong deterrent to protest.

The economic crisis shook awake some of this dormant discontent, Mr. Meyer says. It especially shattered the dreams of the swelling middle class, which had been riding the wave of the 1970s oil boom.

``What's changing is the urban population,'' says political scientist Juan Molinar. ``We now have two Mexicos. The rural sector, which has always supported the PRI, gets smaller every year. And the urban population keeps getting bigger, more educated, and more frustrated with the system. The PRI must open its eyes and deal with the new reality.''

The gap between the people and the government has only been widened by the filling of top posts with so many foreign-educated technocrats, say analysts across the political spectrum. The trend has accelerated under the Harvard-educated Mr. de la Madrid: Of the PRI's six presidential candidates designated in August, only two have held elective office.

In the past few years, the President's technocrats have dealt with very complex economic problems. But while their policies warm the hearts of international bankers and private investors, most Mexicans say they feel left out in the cold.

Next: Apathy dilutes opposition.

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