IN the cities and villages around Mexico, supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party are painting walls with tricolor party symbols and the name of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's handpicked ``successor.''
After more than six decades of unbroken PRI rule (and the persistent allegations of electoral tampering), Mexico's elections are no longer a pro forma event.
In the past, when the PRI named its candidate, many Mexicans equated the announcement with the designation of their next president. But this time the PRI is under new domestic and international spotlights, and seems conscious that the credibility of the electoral process is more important than ever.
For the first time in its history, the PRI faces the challenge of live-broadcast debates and fairer media access for all political parties. And the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement has added outside pressure. Congressmen in Washington raised questions concerning Mexico's democratic principles during the NAFTA approval process.
Having named its former party leader, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, as its candidate, the PRI must now show that it can win the August vote cleanly. It is expected to spend more than $100 million on its campaign.
``The debates could make a huge difference, given that these are personality-centered campaigns,'' says political scientist Federico Estevez. ``It's a major change from the traditional barnstorming done by PRI candidates. It's less easy to stage a debate.''
No debating specifics have yet been agreed upon. But the PRI wants to hold off until after March, the legal deadline for all political parties to declare their candidates.
The leading opposition party on the left, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), says the PRI is stalling. The three major parties have already chosen their candidates. The PRD proposes three rounds of debates, with the first next month.
``Why do they fear a confrontation between his ideas and ours?'' asks PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano. ``What's the difference between the Colosio of December or January and the Colosio of March or April? I think he'll be the same, still representing the same interests and same ideas,'' Mr. Cardenas says.
Political analysts counter that Mr. Colosio will benefit from the delay. ``His message now is vague, unfocused,'' Mr. Estevez notes.
In his Dec. 8 speech at the national party convention and in his initial campaign stops, Colosio has emphasized, in general terms, the need for regional economic development, better education, and more help for the poorest Mexicans. He advocates continuing President Salinas's free-market economic plan, and furthering the ``democratic transformation.''
Colosio is attempting to tackle the credibility problem the PRI built for itself in previous elections. ``The PRI doesn't need, nor do I want, a single vote outside of the law. We will work so that these elections are an example of democratic practices,'' he has said repeatedly.
The PRI candidate is trying to avoid the kind of post-electoral protests now underway in the state of Yucatan. The Yucatan electoral commission on Dec. 17 officially ruled the PRI the winner of the capital city mayoral race. But the National Action Party, which lost the office in a close race, claims rampant electoral fraud.
Colosio is calling for an audit of the 1994 electoral roll and impartial national observers (registered with the federal electoral agency). He also promises, for the first time, to provide reports on the financing of his campaign.
But opposition leaders point out that Colosio is not proposing anything not outlined in the new electoral reform law. Some opposition parties and radical PRI members want foreign election observers.
Mexican electoral results are ``permanently under the shadow of suspicion, doubt, and skepticism,'' says Alejandro Rojas Diaz-Duran, a PRI legislator and member of a group called Foundation for Democracy, which has invited 82 foreign observers from 27 nations to visit Mexico in the coming months.
The changes in electoral law have also allowed greater media access to all candidates. In the past, opposition candidates were often refused the opportunity to buy air time or get legitimate news coverage. Some radio and television operators were afraid that by promoting opposition candidates they might lose their government-granted concession.
PRD officials admit they have had much better media access in recent months. The new law makes it harder for broadcasters to deny access or inflate prices for air time on a selective basis. ``The message of all the parties, in particular the left, will tend to reach more people in this campaign,'' notes Arturo Sanchez, a researcher at the Mexican Institute of Political Studies.
Last week, PRD candidate Cardenas made several proposals designed to increase the supervision of the election and reduce the bias in the media. But bias is not an easy thing to legislate out of media reports. Televisa, the nation's largest commercial television network, is considered pro-PRI.
A PRD study of Mexican national television coverage since Colosio was named the PRI candidate shows 100 percent of the reports on the PRI candidate were favorable. The reports covering Cardenas were judged objective 55 percent of the time.