TO many Mexicans, the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the government are like two side-by-side oaks whose roots have knotted together inseparably over the 65 years the PRI has been in power.
As a result, opposition party officials claim that, for them, the August elections are not just a campaign to topple an incumbent party but a quixotic fight against the state, local, and federal government institutions run by the PRI.
``The lack of democracy in Mexico is clearly exemplified by the close links between the PRI and the government,'' says Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, secretary-general of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). ``We must attack this unholy bond now, at the roots, or democracy won't develop in Mexico.''
On April 27, the PAN took a dramatic swipe at the symbiotic relationship between the ruling party and the government, accusing a Cabinet member of violating new electoral laws that impose stiff fines and up to nine years in prison for the use of government resources to support a party or candidate.
In a complaint filed with the Mexican Attorney General's office, the PAN charged one of Mexico's most powerful politicians, Secretary of Agriculture and Water Resources Carlos Hank Gonzalez, of diverting public funds to support the PRI presidential candidate.
The PAN claims Mr. Hank Gonzalez used government time, personnel, and equipment to solicit the support of 57 former government ministers for PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon. The former ministers signed a statement of support, published April 12 in full-page national newspaper ads.
But on May 5, the Mexican Attorney General's office dropped the case against Hank Gonzalez for lack of evidence. It could not authenticate a photocopied letter allegedly sent by the personal secretary of Hank Gonzalez, on ministry letterhead, asking the ministers to support Mr. Zedillo. The ads cost about 200,000 pesos ($62,000), but were paid for by Hank Gonzalez's personal account, according to the attorney general. In a May 5 press conference, Hank Gonzalez admitted the letter was prepared by his secretary, but said it was done after work.
Mr. Calderon calls the attorney general's actions ``lamentable'' and ``a blow to the credibility'' of the August elections. The center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) says it will pursue the instance with the special prosecutor for electoral crimes, a recently created post that is expected to be filled this week.
The PRI, which is the only party that can legally use the same colors as the Mexican flag, is well aware of its credibility problem and is taking steps to publicly distance itself from the government. Last week, for the first time, the PRI released an account of campaign income and expenses from Dec. 8 to March 17. But opposition parties are questioning the PRI figures.
During this campaign, the PRI candidate and media have traveled on commercial aircraft. Whereas during the 1988 campaign, then-PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari traveled in the official presidential aircraft, flown by Mexican Air Force pilots, according to PRI officials.
But opposition parties say old PRI habits die hard. ``The government and the [PRI] party are still the same entity. Today, the accounting system has changed, but not the actual practices,'' says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, an adviser to PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano. Mr. Zinser says he witnessed PRI-government solidarity first-hand, working under former Mexican President Luis Echeverria.
At the PAN, Calderon pulls out pictures of Mexico City employees using a city vehicle to hang campaign posters for a PRI gubernatorial candidate last year. Calderon also claims a PRI senate candidate for Mexico state used the electoral roll - not officially available to political parties - as a mailing list to send out party propaganda.
Opposition party officials say they are gathering more evidence of what they consider is government complicity with the PRI. For example, the PRD plans to file a complaint against Commerce Secretary Jaime Jose Serra Puche for the alleged violation of the electoral laws by using public funds to fly to Washington to ``campaign'' for Zedillo. On May 2, Mr. Serra Puche allegedly told a Washington public forum: ``Those candidates that offer permanency are going to be the most successful, and in the end that's going to be our candidate, Zedillo.''
And in Jalisco, in Mexico State, the PAN is filing charges against the PRI governor for allegedly using Solidarity public works funds to solicit support for Zedillo.
These examples show that the opposition is likely to keep the pressure on the PRI. The interior minister has told political party officials privately that he would be ``delighted'' to prosecute an electoral fraud case before the August 21 elections to show the willingness of his office to uphold the law. It's clear that the opposition parties would be delighted to provide him with such a case.