FOUR months before Mexico's presidential elections, the latest polls show the ruling party with a fat lead. But the lead appears to be shrinking as a credibility problem dogs the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) at home and abroad.
Despite three electoral reforms under the present government (the latest was approved last month) and a January political pact to hold clean elections, public distrust of the government's handling of the August elections appears to be growing.
In the last two months, the number of Mexicans who believed that the government would abide by the real voting results fell from 34 to 25 percent of those polled in five cities, according to Market Opinion Research International, a Mexico City firm. The same April 20 poll shows 44 percent did not think the government would respect their electoral choice.
The ruling party's main rival, the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), seems well aware of this public distrust, and continues to push for more electoral reforms. ``The PRI is preparing a mechanism for a much more refined fraud,'' in the coming elections, said PRD deputy Jesus Martin del Campo at a press conference earlier this week.
`Ghost voters' on the ballot lists
In a sampling of the voter roll in the state of Veracruz, the PRD claims that 6.4 percent of the names are nonexistent ``ghost voters.'' Nationwide, the PRD claims about 4 million, or 10 percent, of these phantom voters are on the official electoral roll.
Last week, the Federal Electoral Institute, the government agency managing the elections, agreed to a historic first: allowing non-Mexican firms to audit the national voter list. The government has also been broadcasting radio ads encouraging voters to confirm that their names are correctly listed.
But opposition parties discount this as a publicity stunt. As one local newspaper pointed out, citizen verification of the voter list is a logistical impossibility. The limited number of computer terminals set up for verification nationwide cannot possibly service the 42 million registered voters by the April 30 deadline.
Opposition parties also say the government isn't giving external auditors enough time to do a thorough analysis of the list.
PRD presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano says that if the August elections are fraudulent, he'll rally supporters to ``defend'' the vote. Mr. Cardenas lost the 1988 elections to Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The vote was tarnished by fraud accusations, but Cardenas did not aggressively protest the results.
What the PRD is pushing for now is a comprehensive audit of the voter list, a top-to-bottom change of personnel in the Federal Electoral Institute to rid it of PRI supporters, and legislation from the current session of Congress ensuring all political parties equal access to the media.
At this late date, Mexican political scientist Arturo Sanchez doubts the PRD will make much headway. But Mexican opposition parties have found an ally in the United States Congress. On Tuesday, Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey held a hearing on Mexican electoral reform.
``Electoral reform is critical to the stability of Mexico and to the success of [the North American Free Trade Agreement],'' said Mr. Torricelli, chairman of the House subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs. ``The US cannot silently accept fraudulent elections in Mexico.''
A Torricelli aide in Washington conceded that ``we're seeing some progress on what remains a big problem.'' But he warned that if the Clinton administration does not ``let Salinas know how important this issue is now, it will soon be too late to do anything about it.''
According to PRI sources, there may be a move to take some of the wind out of the opposition's sails by moving up the date for the first-ever election of the mayor of Mexico City from 1997 to August 1994. The mayor of this megalopolis of 20 million inhabitants traditionally has been appointed by the president, but the opposition managed last year to push through reforms making the post an elected office.
On April 10, the PRI presidential candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon signaled his willingness to see a change in unusually blunt criticism of the present system. ``The problems of the capital originate in the lack of democracy in the Federal District, because there are no channels whereby the opinion of the people counts,'' he said.
A variety of opinion polls
Despite the credibility problem, the PRI holds a commanding lead in the polls. How big a lead depends on the poll. If the elections were held during the week of April 7-11, Mr. Zedillo would get 58 percent of the vote, Cardenas 22 percent, and Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party would get 15 percent, according to a poll done by Indemerc-Louis Harris.
An April 18 poll by the government-leaning newspaper El National gives Zedillo a 63 percent popularity rating, followed by Cardenas at 16, and Mr. Cevallos at 12.
The latest weekly poll by Market Opinion and Research International, taken on April 15-17, shows Zedillo getting 34 percent of the vote, versus 22 for Cardenas, and 20 for Cevallos.
Mexican polls tend to be unreliable, as people often do not state their true beliefs due to fear of retaliation from the authoritarian government, political analysts say.
The trend in each poll indicates that the ruling party has slipped since Zedillo, a relative unknown, became its presidential candidate after the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio on March 23. Cardenas has improved in the standings, and this past week, according to one poll, so has Cevallos.
The overall political and economic uncertainty is not helping the PRI. The stock market took a nose dive this week and economic growth is estimated at a mere 0.5 percent for the first three months of 1994.
Meanwhile, the Colosio murder investigation appears stalled, with the government unable to provide motives or sufficient evidence of a conspiracy apart from video tapes of the campaign rally, which appear to show several people acting in cahoots with the confessed assassin.
The prevailing opinion is that the PRI itself or a disgruntled faction of the PRI is behind Colosio's death. Polls show the PRI at the top of most people's list of suspects in the case. Opposition parties have fueled the doubts by protesting that the special prosecutor investigating the case is a PRI stalwart. On Wednesday, President Salinas sought to erase any doubts by appointing a five-member citizens' panel to work with the special prosecutor because ``the country wants to know the truth,'' Salinas said.