NEW leaders of this industrial city in the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon believe they have seen the future of Mexico - and it is blue and white.
Those colors are the symbols of the National Action Party, or PAN, which has played the role of dutiful opposition to Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) since the PAN's founding in 1939.
But in the wake of Mexico's Aug. 21 national elections, which gave the PAN presidential candidate a better-than-ever 26 percent of the vote, the conservative party is enjoying new vigor and a momentum that many Mexicans believe could take it to Mexico City's Los Pinos presidential palace in 2000.
``The PAN has slowly progressed since it first started winning local elections in the 1950s, but this is the first time it came in second in the presidential race,'' says Beatriz Livas Gonzalez, a professor of Mexican history at Tecnologico de Monterrey. ``The next election [in six years] could take it over the top.''
The August elections were also the first in which the PAN emerged as a truly national party, according to Federico Arreola, a political columnist for the Mexico City daily El Financiero. Citing a spreading of the party's electoral strength to states where before it had been nearly nonexistent, Mr. Arreola concludes that ``sustaining this growth will put the PAN in a position to defeat the PRI for the presidency in 2000.''
The race in Monterrey
A prime example of the PAN's growing strength was its victory in the race for mayor of Monterrey - capital of Nuevo Leon, an important industrial center, and Mexico's third-largest city.
The race was initially declared a very narrow PRI victory, but last month an election tribunal voided enough ballots due to irregularities to throw the mayoralty - and a major public-relations victory - to the PAN.
``All of Mexico now knows that the rule of law prevailed here and the PAN will govern Monterrey,'' says Jesus Hinojosa Tijerna, the city's PAN-ista mayor-elect. Moreover, he adds, the PAN will now govern nearly 80 percent of the state's population - putting it in an excellent position, he believes, to take Nuevo Les governorship for the first time in 1997 state elections.
Voters' tiring of the PRI in its 65-year-old role as all-powerful state party, and a growing desire among Mexico's expanding middle classes for a pluralistic political system, are combining to give the PAN a new push, analysts agree. ``The PAN has long been associated with efforts to democratize the political system, so as that democratization has become a national theme, it has helped the PAN,'' Ms. Livas says.
The PAN has also developed a reputation for clean, local administration in the municipalities it governs, distinguishing it from the corruption-tainted PRI.
Further progress by the PAN and other opposition parties depends in part on reforms needed to make Mexico's electoral politics a more-even playing field.
After his defeat, PAN presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos railed against unfair sharing of resources between the government and the ruling party that gave the PRI what he called an unscrupulous and unfair advantage in the August elections. Mr. Fernandez is now taking a low public profile but is expected to remain active within his party.
Of course, the PAN still has some high hurdles of its own to clear before it can claim to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the PRI - or hope to occupy Los Pinos, Mexico's White House.
It will need to expand its support base beyond the middle classes that have been its mainstay, analysts say, and begin grooming presidential hopefuls with national weight and appeal.
Moreover, the PAN will have to defeat what some analysts say remains a strong perception among Mexicans that the ``blue and white'' is fit for local office but not ready for a national role.
``People now know the PAN at the local level, but they still tend toward the PRI for higher offices,'' says Ricardo Fuentes Cavazos, dean of the political science faculty at the National Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon.
``If [PRI presidential candidate Ernesto] Zedillo [Ponce de Leon] won in Nuevo Leon while PAN candidates were winning some local races, it's because there is still more confidence in the experience of the PRI candidate.''
Weak in the rural areas
Then there is what Livas calls the party's image problem. The PAN is seen as ``the party that serves the middle and business classes,'' she says. ``But millions of working-class Mexicans are more accustomed to the `you give me, I give you' style of the PRI.'' Adds Mr. Fuentes, ``The PAN's reputation is for being an asphalt party - for the cities, but not for the rural, poorer areas.''
One proposal to help get around that problem is for the PAN to form alliances with other ``democratic'' parties, such as the left-leaning PRD (third in the presidential vote) - an idea touted by the populist and charismatic Vincente Fox, a recognized PAN ``up and comer''. (A man after the working class, right.)
Yet while Mr. Fox says the proposal is the only way for Mexico's democratic forces to defeat the PRI, other PAN leaders reject it as ruinous for the party.
``To forget our ideals and ally ourselves with parties supporting a different platform is not the way to match the PRI,'' says Carlos Castillo Peraza, PAN's national president. ``We win when we go forward alone, and according to our own philosophy.''
Despite PAN gains in national representation, the PRI will still have the margin to pretty much do as it sees fit when Mr. Zedillo takes office on Dec. 1. But divisions within the ruling party over reform and the additional blow of recent political violence are offering the PAN new vistas.
``We are going to be pushing hard for a separation of the PRI from the government, for development in Mexico of a true federalism, and for regional economic development,'' Mr. Castillo says. ``Our presence in the Congress will be such that we can do this.''
On one point analysts are unanimous: The best way for the PAN to work toward its goal of the presidency in 2000 will be to show before then how effective - and clean - it can be with the new political power it has attained.