ALTHOUGH he did not even run in the controversial state elections here two weeks ago, leftist leader Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas was used as a prime weapon in the campaign's ``war of the walls.'' ``Just like Cuauht'emoc, join the PARM,'' urges a poster for the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution. ``Cardenism is coming and it suits the people,'' proclaims another for the Cardenist Front.
Even the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) plastered over other posters with a striking black-and-white photo of Mr. C'ardenas's famous father, L'azaro C'ardenas, a revolutionary general who became the most popular President in Mexican history. The caption: ``One of our own.''
Yet C'ardenas - an ex-PRI member who rocked Mexico's entrenched single-party system in last July's presidential election by uniting the left and capturing an unprecedented 31 percent of the votes - no longer represents any of these parties. In the year since the presidential vote, the leftist coalition has fragmented. Even C'ardenas' charisma, which leads the parties to use his name, has been unable to hold the opposition together.
The triumphant Mexican left is now fighting for survival, even as the conservative National Action Party (PAN) usurps its position as the top opposition party.
For political analysts trained to read the writing on the wall, the plethora of pro-C'ardenas posters here highlights three factors behind the left's decline: confusion over which party C'ardenas represents, a ``cult'' surrounding C'ardenas, and a confrontation with the powerful PRI.
Two months ago, in an effort to translate his loose coalition into a formal electoral structure, C'ardenas formed the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). In the process, the coalition disintegrated into a hodgepodge of parties, all claiming C'ardenas' legacy.
In Michoac'an, the July 2 legislative elections pitted PRD candidates not just against the PRI, but other leftist parties as well. PRD officials, claiming that the PRI stole the elections, say the competition didn't hurt them. But even their own figures bear out that the PRD only garnered 50 percent of the vote compared to the 64 percent C'ardenas won last year.
Part of that decline seems due to voters' bewilderment. At the Morelia headquarters of the PARM, which broke away from C'ardenas this spring but still uses his name, office workers could not even decide for whom a C'ardenas supporter should vote. ``There's a lot of confusion,'' says PRD supporter Alejandro Santill'en. ``Some of my `Cardenista' friends voted for the Cardenist Front without knowing that C'ardenas no longer supports them.''
Despite their remarkable coalescence for last year's election, leftist groups have failed to put aside traditional ideological disputes.
In Baja California Norte, one of five states where C'ardenas defeated current President Carlos Salinas De Gortari last year, leftist candidates in the recent governor's race spent more time hurling insults at each other than fighting the PRI. As they bickered, the PAN leapfrogged over everybody to capture the first opposition governorship since the ruling party began 60 years ago. The total leftist vote plunged from 37 percent last year to less than 5 percent.
To some, the flop was due to an identity crisis. ``The PRD still has to define itself,'' says Jos'e Luis P'erez Canchola, a left-leaning columnist in Tijuana. ``It is such a mix of ex-PRI members and communists that it's hard to come up with a clear program.''
But for others, it has more to do with the fickle nature of the Mexican electorate, which votes more on the basis of personalities than ideologies. Political opposition in Mexico is so new that voters disenchanted with the PRI usually look for any candidate strong enough to defeat it.
First-time opposition voters made up an estimated 20 percent of the C'ardenas vote in last year's election in Baja California Norte. But with this year's weak PRD campaign, those voters - plus some long-time leftists - migrated across the political spectrum to right-wing PAN candidate Ernesto Ruffo, the only candidate strong enough to defeat the PRI.
``It's not a contest between left and right, but between the opposition and the system,'' says Tonatiuh Guillen, a political scientist at the College of the Northern Frontier in Tijuana. ``The difference between parties is not so relevant as the ability to beat the system.''
In a system that still revolves around an all-powerful president, analysts explain, Mexican voters are attracted to charismatic political strong men, known here as caudillos. ``We are not in favor of caudillismo,'' says Leonel Godoy, a PRD federal deputy from Michoac'an. ``But we can't deny that the charismatic figure here is Cuauht'emoc ... People see him as the medium for change.''
But on a national level, President Salinas has bolstered his own image as a gutsy leader bent on reform. In seven months, he has jailed a covey of corrupt leaders: the oil-workers' union boss, a crooked financier, a drug kingpin, and the former chief of the secret police.
``No one thought Salinas was going to move so fast, so skillfully,'' says one PRD adviser, who thinks the C'ardenas movement has been trimmed to its real size. ``That obviously hurts the opposition, especially among middle-class voters.''
Beyond his well-publicized maneuvers, Salinas has also tried to weaken the C'ardenas movement. According to PRI sources, Salinas would rather recognize the PAN, which shares his economic vision, than the PRD, a socialist-leaning party that has refused even to talk with government.
After losing Michoac'an to C'ardenas in a landslide last year, the PRI decided to launch an intense five-month campaign to win back voters. Using a flood of public resources, it has given the rural state badly needed services: food, medicine, housing, and water systems, among other things.
The financially strapped PRD cannot compete economically against the PRI machine. It also has very few legal recourses to fight electoral fraud. In several districts around Michoac'an, the PRI seems to be manipulating results in an attempt to salvage a victory.
``Since the situation has changed so much, the PRI feels obliged ... to show more toughness,'' says PAN deputy Luis Mej'ias G'uzman, a dairy farmer, who compares the PRI strategy against the PRD to his own work.
``As those of us with cows say, you have to tie up its hind legs so it won't kick you while you're milking it.''