Mexico vote: it's the contest, not the winner, that counts

On the eve of the most competitive presidential election in Mexican history, the three main candidates are fighting over the same turf: the political center. Despite widespread discontent with the country's authoritarian political system, the battle for the center shows a recognition of the basic conservatism that still pervades Mexican society, according to leading politicians and analysts here.

``Everybody in Mexico criticizes the system,'' says social scientist Ignacio Marvan. ``We despise corruption, ineptitude, and arbitrary decisions. But we don't want to invent a new country.''

In a society seemingly obsessed with its violent past, memories of the bloody 1910-20 revolution and the 1968 student massacre loom as tangible warnings of extremism - and reminders of the value of stability. (Candidate's adviser shot dead, Page 2.)

In many ways, historical conservatism benefits the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has won every presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial election since it emerged from the rubble of the revolution in 1929. With total control ensured by the PRI, Mexico has been able to rebuild itself without falling into the pattern of coups and revolutions that have beset other Latin American nations.

But the PRI's absolute grip has weakened in the face of the society's modernization and a severe economic crisis.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the PRI candidate and undoubted winner in next Wednesday's vote, faces two strong challengers who will likely make the PRI's margin of victory the smallest in history. Trying to sell the PRI as the party of stability, Mr. Salinas recently defined himself a ``center-progressive'' while labeling the other candidates ``extremists.''

But the other two contenders, while offering vastly different alternatives on economic policy, are hardly pictures of extremism.

Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas, the candidate for the left-leaning National Democratic Front, is an unabashed product of the system: He is an ex-PRI member, a former governor, and the son of populist president Lazaro C'ardenas (1934-1940). In the past several weeks, the engineer has pulled his leftist coalition even more toward the center by softening his stance for a debt moratorium and the state's role in the economy.

Manuel Clouthier, the sharp-tongued candidate of the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), burst out of the blocks earlier this year with talk of massive civil disobedience and possible election-day violence. But as he seeks broader appeal, his fiery rhetoric has cooled.

But even if the fear of drastic change may help the PRI, political analysts point to several new phenomena that have destabilized the single-party system, thus making reform unavoidable: a more urban and modern political culture that no longer accepts the imposition of power; a devastating economic crisis that has stirred discontent in nearly every class; and a dispute among elites over how to handle the crises.

This triple-play has hurt the PRI's image of stability. Many hard-hit middle-class Mexicans, fed up with an unresponsive government that is only slowly shedding the vestiges of a state-run economy, have been siphoned off by Mr. Clouthier's PAN.

Thousands of other workers and peasants, showing little trust in the inflation-fighting pact pushed through by the government last December, find more security in the populist rhetoric of Mr. C'ardenas.

``It is the party that has been failing,'' says Rodolfo Gonz'alez Guevara, a former PRI secretary general who, unlike C'ardenas, is now fighting for change within the party.

``The basic sectors of the party [the peasants, the workers, and the popular classes] now have less participation in the decision-making process,'' he says. ``The party needs a profound reform not to change its structure, but so the structure functions and serves the people.''

The PRI, which is more of a government-funded electoral machine than a traditional party, still draws far more votes than the other contending parties. Analysts say the PRI will win about 50 percent of the votes, compared to somewhere in the mid-20s for each of the contenders.

Many Mexican workers say their unions coerce them into voting for the PRI; some voters worry they may lose basic services if they vote for an opposition party; others fear the unknown. ``A lot of people vote for the PRI just so they don't rock the boat,'' says one leading analyst. ``There's a great fear about what's in store for Mexico if the PRI apparatus should be destroyed.''

Many industrialists and businessmen that are benefitted by the PRI do not want to jeopardize their special relationship with the state.

But the only place the PRI retains most of its strength is in the rural areas. Peasant and labor leaders can use the party to press for public works or wage increases. Indeed, many Mexicans still see the PRI as the only party with the experience and capacity to govern.

``The PRI is in the habit of being in power,'' says PRI deputy Maria Emilia Farias. That ruling mentality may make it difficult for some members to recognize the party's failures tomorrow, she admits, but it also creates a winning aura.

``People like to go with a sure bet,'' she says. ``It's a psychological thing. But it creates a tremendous amount of [momentum] for the winner.''

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