Economic hardship swells ranks of discontented. But political opponents lack resources to compete with ruling party. As Mexico gears up for Presidential elections, opposition groups are gaining momentum. Yet opposition parties have found it hard to capture and keep political converts. The ruling party's dominance of daily life and Mexicans' lack of familiarity with democratic processes have borne the fruit of apathy and growing abstentionism in state and national elections.

Two years after a thunderous earthquake reduced her apartment building to rubble, Mar'ia Uribe de Hurtado gently hits the concrete wall of her newly reconstructed home. ``It's bigger and stronger than the old one,'' she laughs, pointing out that nine of her 15 children still share the family apartment.

But while Mrs. Uribe de Hurtado is glad the government - which is run by members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - helped them build and buy the apartment, she vows defiantly: ``I will never vote for the PRI again.''

It may seem ungrateful. But says the short, stout housewife, the government dallied for nearly 18 months with her neighborhood's requests - and then responded only to the tireless pressure of an opposition congressman fighting for the earthquake victims.

Now Uribe de Hurtado supports the congressman's party - the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS), a recently formed coalition of four leftist groups.

For opposition movements trying to reshape the future of Mexico, the crucial task of finding and keeping political converts like Uribe de Hurtado is demanding - and elusive.

There is no doubt that the ranks of discontented voters have swelled during the past five years of economic hardship. And as this year's presidential succession period rises to a crescendo (the naming of the PRI candidate is expected any day), opposition groups are gaining a momentum unequaled in past presidential elections. Movements on the left and right - as well as the Democratic Current within the PRI - are all turning the heat on the party hierarchy.

But in the battle for voters' hearts and minds, the true winners have been apathy and abstentionism. Official abstention rates don't seem alarming: They have generally wavered around 50 percent for senate and gubernatorial elections and 30 percent for the heavily promoted presidential ``races'' (even though PRI victories are practically foreordained).

But in the past few state elections, there have been more troubling signs. A recent example is the July 5 gubernatorial election in Mexico State. Predictably, PRI candidate Mario Ram'on Beteta - former chief of the government-run oil monopoly PEMEX - won in a landslide. But while officials pegged the abstention rate at 50 percent, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) claimed it was 80 percent. Now, even PRI officials are privately admitting that it was closer to 90 percent.

``I know I should vote,'' a middle-class woman, a PRI supporter, said on election day. Somewhat apologetic, she explained her feeling of helplessness: ``We know Beteta will win. But we didn't choose him. He was imposed on us.''

It makes one wonder: Why can't the opposition capitalize on this mountain of apathetic voters? Why aren't there more people, like Hurtado, flooding opposition ranks?

According to a wide spectrum of political experts, there are various explanations that revolve around a single fact: The PRI has so dominated daily life in Mexico for 58 years that nearly everybody has some stake in the ruling-party system. Since the PRI has always been the sole distributor of resources, most Mexicans do not believe there is a viable, positive alternative to the existing set up. Even today, with resources scarce, the PRI craftily co-opts and controls potential political opposition.

In Tijuana's Colonia Obrera neighborhood, for example, tortilla shopowner V'ictor Ibarra Amabor says he avoids all contact with opposition parties - just to make sure the government-run electric company keeps his circuits flowing.

The PRI leadership used a similar technique to take some momentum away from the Democratic Current. By publicly announcing the six individuals under consideration to be the presidential candidate, political experts say, the PRI co-opted part of the Current's ideas for opening up the process without forfeiting its own power. The selection process remains as mysterious as before, but public pressure has been somewhat alleviated.

This uncanny ability to defuse the opposition highlights the fact that political foes simply lack the resources and infrastructure to compete with the PRI, one prominent political expert says.

Political scientist Juan Molinar says abstentionism poses little threat for the PRI. ``The high abstention rate does provide a base for potential opposition, but Mexican politics functions day to day, not just at election time.'' So long as other parties have little to offer during nonelection season, ``the potential means little.''

Opposition leaders offer varying reasons for their inability to attract large numbers of apathetic nonvoters. ``We can't organize abstentionism because there is still a distortion in the Mexican mind,'' says Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, presidential candidate for the Workers' Revolutionary Party. ``Mexicans always hope the next PRI president will be `the good one' who will solve all problems.''

This feisty ex-housewife explains how she stormed into the political arena after her activist son ``disappeared'' 12 years ago. Since then, she has tried to wake people up to the need for uprooting Mexico's authoritarian leadership. ``Mexicans haven't been prepared to take the political system into their own hands.''

Her comments are echoed on the other end of the political spectrum. ``There is a national sickness,... a form of collective hypnosis,'' says Jes'us Gonz'alez Schmal, a leading contender for the PAN candidacy. ``People feel at the margin of political decisions. They've had 60 years of being taught to depend rather than lead.''

The lack of political education extends to the leaders. ``They can't be democratic because the system has given them no way of learning that,'' says former PAN deputy Fernando Estrada S'amano. ``Democratic habits are not learned from one day to the next. You have to build them slowly and painfully.'' But he feels there is something to build on: the way thousands of Mexicans spontaneously organized a relief effort in the wake of the 1985 earthquakes. ``The earthquake was a luminous lesson on Mexico preparedness for democracy. People took this city into their own hands.''

Second in a three-part series. Next: Prospects for change.

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