Dogged by a reputation for fraudulent elections, the Mexican government is spending big bucks - more than $1 billion - to make these the cleanest in Mexican history.

``The principal issue,'' says Mexico expert John Bailey in an analysis published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C., ``is the credibility of the electoral process itself.''

``If you want to understand what's happening now, you must look at 1988,'' says Jorge Alcocer, editor of Voz y Voto, a Mexican political newsmagazine. ``Nobody wants that trauma to be repeated.''

In 1988, early election returns showed opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano winning. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was headed for its first defeat since 1929. Mysteriously, the vote-tallying computers crashed. Days later, the official results gave PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari the victory with 50.7 percent of the vote. No one knows who won. The PRI-dominated Congress later voted to destroy the 19.9 million paper ballots kept in storage.

Along with the election ``ghosts'' of 1988, the North American Free Trade Agreement has put a new international spotlight on Mexico. President Salinas, seeking to position Mexico as a ``first world'' nation, has dramatically transformed the Mexican economy while gradually making political reforms. But in January, Salinas got an abrupt wake-up call in the form of an armed Mayan Indian uprising, whose instigators demanded greater democracy.

``Chiapas ignited the political process in a way never seen before,'' says Mexican political scientist Jose Antonio Crespo. ``Since January, we've been in a process of transition.''

Has the transition advanced far enough to ensure clean and fair elections? ``The problem isn't one of standards, but of practices,'' Mr. Alcocer says.

The news media, for example, continue to favor the ruling party. And the decades-old symbiotic relationship between the PRI and the government is hard to break. The electoral prosecutor already has 180 allegations of electoral crimes to investigate. Most relate to the use of government funds, vehicles, or other resources to help the PRI.

But over the last six to 12 months, the government has undertaken several unprecedented credibility-building steps. Among them:

* State-of-the-art voter-identification cards, with photos, thumb prints, holograms, and other tamper-proof features.

* A computerized voter list, independently audited, with nearly 95 percent of the voting population (45.7 million voters) registered, according to election officials.

* Specially formulated indelible ink to be applied to voters' thumbs to prevent double voting.

* The random selection of citizens to be voting station officials, rather than the appointment of ruling party officials.

* A semi-independent federal electoral institute supervising the election. The ruling party no longer holds the majority on the policymaking board.

* An estimated 35,000 registered Mexican electoral observers fielded by nongovernmental organizations. About 1,000 foreign ``visitors'' with limited observation powers.

* A United Nations team providing technical assistance, training, and funding.

* Exit polling and legalized quick-count systems by at least seven different organizations.

``Credibility is a difficult thing to build,'' Mr. Crespo concludes. ``Maybe you could do it over six years. But over six months?''

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