THERE is growing concern in Mexico that even if the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) wins the August presidential elections, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
This was highlighted last week when Mexican newspapers carried front-page photographs of antiriot vehicles being imported from the United States. Human rights groups and opposition parties condemn the purchase as an indication that the government is preparing for fraudulent elections and therefore expects a violent backlash. The government confirms the purchase of 24 ``tankettes'' as part of a modernization program, but denies expectations of election-related violence.
The possibility of political unrest, nonetheless, is getting attention. ``If the PRI wins big, with 60 percent of the vote, nobody will believe it. The opposition will cry fraud and go to the streets to defend their vote. They'll burn down the country,'' predicts Arturo Sanchez of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, a consulting firm in Mexico City.
Mr. Sanchez argues the best scenario for nonviolent, credible elections is for the PRI to win 50 percent of the vote, the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) to get 30 percent, and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) to bring in 20 percent.
But Alfonso Zarate Flores, a Mexico City political consultant, argues that if the PRI triumphs by a slim margin, that, too, is a recipe for political disturbances. ``If the PRI pulls in less than 50 percent of the vote, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas [Solorzano, the PRD candidate] comes in a close second, this is a serious situation, which could lead to the kind of protests we saw in San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato [after gubernatorial elections in 1991], but on a national level.''
In anticipation, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has brought back his ambassador to Cuba, Beatriz Paredes Rangel, to negotiate with the opposition to prevent post-electoral conflict.
Most Mexican political analysts believe the PRI will win this election, as it has every presidential election in its 65-year history. But the party was dealt a severe blow when its candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated on March 23. His replacement, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, is an economist, a former central bank administrator, and ex-education minister. But he has never run for public office, and it shows.
At an April 27 campaign rally in Guadalajara, the professorial-looking Mr. Zedillo faced about 8,000 working class PRI supporters, dressed for the occasion in casual pants and an open shirt. But he never quite connected with his audience. He launched into his speech on judicial reform - a topic that should play well in a city where a Roman Catholic Cardinal was killed in a shootout between narcotraffickers last year. But the intermittent applause seemed more scripted than spontaneous.
Later, at a business community luncheon, Zedillo received several spontaneous standing ovations while delivering essentially the same speech.
Zedillo is expected to improve with more public performances. Mexican journalists covering the campaign say his voice is already more commanding, thanks to coaching. And he captured the public eye with a surprise trip to Chiapas - the first of the front-running candidates to make one - and by initiating the scheduling of a nationally televised presidential debate, expected to take place sometime between May 3 and 16.
But Zedillo and the PRI must move fast as elections are less than four months away. And though the PRI government can claim it has tackled inflation and landed a free trade agreement, the Colosio murder triggered a run on the peso and soaring interest rates.
Credit card annual interest rates have jumped from 30 to 42 percent in the past month, the National Association of Credit Card Holders says. ``Wait until the people with credit cards, car payments, and mortgages see what higher interest rates do to their payments. You could see serious voter discontent four months from now,'' Sanchez says.
The time for reaching voters before elections is actually less than four months. The World Cup soccer matches will steal attention for one month. And at any moment, the Chiapas uprising, now in a negotiation phase, could displace candidates from the headlines.
Finally, if the ruling party wants to avoid violence, it must win cleanly, analysts say. Recent electoral reforms, political pacts, and promises of ``greater transparency'' by the PRI and government officials are aimed at bolstering the credibility of a process dogged by a reputation of fraud. The problem, PRI supporters say, is if Zedillo is not perceived as popular enough to win, local PRI-istas may resort to winning ``the old-fashioned way.''
Zedillo says that is an unjust characterization of PRI local officials. ``If anyone wants clean elections in our country it's the grass roots of the PRI,'' he said, adding that the party is conducting an ``intense'' propaganda campaign about new electoral laws and penalties for violating them.
Still, observers say the nation is on edge. The confluence of recent events - the Chiapas uprising, Colosio's assassination, the murder of the Tijuana police chief, and the kidnapping of two Mexico City businessmen - have generated a feeling of unease. ``There's a sense that anything could happen,'' Sanchez says.